No, Personal Responsibility Won’t Solve Inequality: New Study Dispels Common Myths Behind Racial Wealth Gap

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Much has been reported about the racial wealth gap—but much is still misunderstood. A new report on the wealth gap focuses on the stubborn, pervasive myths that inform people’s understanding of America’s racial wealth disparity—and points readers in the direction of real solutions.


The report, “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap” (pdf), highlights 10 common myths that shape people’s views of the racial wealth gap and dismantles them. These include well-meaning but misplaced solutions—like the belief that higher education, better jobs, homeownership, buying black or banking black, entrepreneurship, a greater emphasis on saving or greater personal responsibility would help close the deep wealth divide between black families and other Americans.

The study begins by noting that educational attainment has no impact on closing the wealth gap.

“At every level of educational attainment, black families’ median wealth is substantially lower than their white counterparts,” the report reads, observing that this is true even when comparing different levels of educational achievement. For example, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth, on average, than a white household whose head didn’t even obtain a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, solutions like banking black or brushing up on financial literacy simply can’t address the scope and depth of the problem.

“Black businesses and banks cannot thrive on a separate and unequal playing field,” the study finds. “Even if we accept the estimated $1.2 trillion total of ‘black buying power’”—an oft-repeated figure of murky origins—“as valid, it still is only 60 percent of the value of J.P. Morgan’s total assets.”


And so-called commonsense solutions like financial literacy programs, while beneficial in some ways, don’t address the actual causes of the racial wealth gap. In fact, they imply that poor decision-making or lack of financial knowledge is at fault for the ever-increasing gap, and not larger systemic decisions and policies, like redlining and predatory lending.

“Meager economic circumstances—not poor decision-making or deficient knowledge—constrain choices and leave asset-poor borrowers with little to no other option but to use predatory and abusive alternative financial services,” the report’s authors write.


The report, which comes out of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, also dispels the myth that black people don’t value education or are less ambitious than other minorities, finding that when controlled for household type and socioeconomic status, black families tend to be more supportive than white families of their children’s education through direct financial support.

The study also observes that, in the case of Asian Americans, who are often pitted against other racial groups as “model minorities,” the role that institutions played in supporting their businesses is underemphasized. Using Korean-American entrepreneurs as an example, the report outlines how discrimination against black business owners “by default” helped Korean entrepreneurs in many U.S. cities where they share the same communities with black people.


One of the study’s authors, Antonio Moore, a Los Angeles-based attorney and producer, penned an article for Fortune magazine that highlighted the importance of pushing out these sorts of reports.

“The imagination required to move toward closing the racial wealth gap in America requires a daring that moves us beyond mythology. Real national programs, not myths, will move us toward answers for closing the gap in wealth between the races,” Moore wrote.


The study’s authors state that amending the gap would require “a major redistributive effort”—like reparations—“or another major public-policy intervention.”

Moore notes that solutions could be either race-specific or broader-scale initiatives that address “the social destructiveness of growing wealth inequality for the entire American population,” arguing that the latter would “disproportionately benefit” black Americans because of their exceptionally low levels of wealth.


One such solution would be “baby bonds,” writes Moore, a proposal that would involve the U.S. government creating trust funds for American children that would be tied to their familial wealth level. As the Washington Post explains it, Blue Ivy Carter would be eligible for the lowest amount ($500), while a child born into poverty would receive $50,000—an amount they could use toward their education, buying a home or starting a business once they turned 18.

And if that seems pricey, consider that the total proposal would cost $80 billion a year—2 percent of the United States’ $4 trillion in federal spending.



I know studies like these are really important, so I try and resist the urge to just go “uh, duh” in response, but damn this one is hard.

The most responsible person in the world can only affect a certain number of variables in their life. A lazy person born rich and a hard-working and intelligent person born poor have external circumstances they cannot control that will affect them. It’s so weird how, particularly in America, we fetishize individuality to the point of pretending there are no external circumstances. Radical atomism, an old professor of mine called it. He was tough as hell, I had him for public policy and some “political theory” course, but while I don’t think his written teaching method was great his off the cuff stuff was amazing. One of the things he took pains to point out, to a class of about 55% white kids in a fairly good poli sci program, is how much racism is one of those circumstances, and fethisizing radical atomism is a way to ignore that. (He also thought 90% of pre-modern political thought was from Plato or a reaction to Plato, and he made a great case for that too).

I truly think one of the biggest problems to dealing with racism and other systemic issues is that radical atomism fetish that permeates American politics and culture. I don’t think racism gets significantly better unless that’s part of the picture.