The racial wealth gap is larger today than it was when The United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The average white family currently holds about 10 times the wealth of a black one, and the average income from the labor of white families stands at about two times that of black ones (pdf). Left unchecked, the problem is only going to get worse.
An unintended byproduct of the polarizing 2016 presidential election cycle is that acknowledging the racial wealth gap is now almost mandatory for any progressive candidate seeking high office. At the same time, many on the political right have become more conservative, skeptical of any proposal that even hints at upsetting the proverbial apple cart, one might describe it as filled to the brim with the fruit of economic oppression. How is it possible to meaningfully narrow the racial wealth gap in this environment?
In too many discussions of America’s economic apartheid, well-meaning advocates make major points without making minor differences. Bringing about real change is going to require a coordinated shift in how we communicate about the critical action that is needed. Americans concerned with economic justice—which I still hold out hope is the majority of us—need to be more focused in our messaging, more targeted, and need to root it more firmly in the notion of fairness as opposed to the concept of equality, a victim of the late-term egalitarianism that has been weaponized against people of color for decades.
As the 2020 presidential field narrows, it’s important that we identify not only the candidates who support closing the racial wealth gap—they all do—but the candidates whose policies seem likely to make the most difference. Here’s my 2020 game plan for anyone concerned with economic justice:
Focus is important, as we run the real risk of succumbing to compassion fatigue. While the mental exhaustion from trying to alleviate the distress of others is typically associated with the stress of being a caregiver, people also describe a similar psychological response to the 24/7 onslaught of distressing events. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Media mentions of the racial wealth gap have more than doubled in the last year alone, according to Dow Jones international news database Factiva. It’s reasonable to assume that the people reading these stories are reading stories about other manifestations of racial inequality, too.
While mending income gaps need not necessarily be a zero-sum-game, the perceived “competition” between issues is also fierce. Is it fair to focus on the gender pay gap when the pay gap between black and white women is equally stark? Or, why focus on economic issues as climate change threatens to render the planet uninhabitable?
Proposed economic solutions include baby bonds, postal banking, affordable housing initiatives, Medicare expansion, minimum wage increases, and wage transparency legislation—and each has the potential to significantly improve the financial lives of people of color. Which holds the most promise and potential for immediate impact?
We have to contextualize the racial wealth gap in a way that seems surmountable and less daunting, and helps voters expand their empathy rather than numbing it. And we start by staying laser-focused on raising incomes.
Much of the current research on income reveals it as the primary driver for racial wealth disparities. At the same time, focusing on income, specifically minimum wage legislation, has the rhetorical “benefit” of not singling out any particular demographic disproportionately targeting earners of color. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024 would increase the incomes of all black workers by 38.1 percent, and white workers by 23.2 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This increase should also result in a corresponding decrease in dependence on any government sponsored means-tested programs, and so should theoretically appeal to conservatives looking to reduce the size of government.
Raising the minimum wage also taps into a preference for fairness over equality that is now conveniently embedded in the American consciousness. Research has shown that while most Americans talk a big game about equality—constitutionally guaranteed under the law and between men—most people believe we should prioritize having a fair society over an equal one. And however you feel about this, a wage increase for all should strike most Americans as fair. American workers are ready for a raise. In 2018, the inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage was nearly 15 percent lower than it was in 2009, which is the last time it was increased, according to EPI. It’s almost one-third lower than it was at its peak in 1968. Raising the wage to just $15 per hour would improve the incomes of some 40 million people.
Minimum wage hikes have increasingly come from states, meaning that your most impactful vote may be on your local ballot or in an off-year. On the national level, research where your candidate stands on the issue. Take a look at the pace of any proposed increases, as this too can have an impact on both businesses and individuals. Inform fellow voters about the benefits of minimum wage hikes. And because you are going to need receipts, arm yourself with the now abundant examples showing that minimum wage increases can reduce Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollment, and that most minimum wage workers are not teenagers but adults working full time. Know that the evidence is scant that minimum wage hikes reduce employment.
We will be hearing a lot more about the racial wealth gap this year, and it’s imperative that we seize the moment and focus on bringing about meaningful change in 2020. McKinsey estimates that failing to close the racial wealth gap will cost the U.S economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion over the next nine years. It’s everyone’s problem now. And while working to rectify centuries of racial injustice is overwhelming—the key is to start. Start planning, start organizing, and start exercising your right to vote in any and every election at the local, state, and national level.
Yemi Rose is the Founder of OfColor, a financial services platform launching in 2020 that helps people of color to bank on each other. He writes and speaks extensively on the racial wealth gap. Follow him on Twitter.