It seems to be raining sons-in-law. I have never heard the word “son-in-law” as much as I have in the last two weeks.
Of course, there is the chief son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who “works for nothing” in the White House and cannot get a permanent security clearance. There is Alex van der Zwaan, the Dutch son-in-law of a wealthy Russian businessman, who recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. And a Mueller indictment related to money laundering accuses former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of giving instructions to his son-in-law to make an apartment look as if the son-in-law and his wife, Manafort’s daughter, lived there, which they did not.
These sons-in-law, all married to the daughters of powerful men, are doing the work of hoarding opportunity and perpetuating inequality. But this kind of behavior isn’t unique to the rich, famous and famously rich. Hoarding opportunity and perpetuating inequality is, in fact, a key feature of more typical white American families.
Despite all the hand-wringing about economic insecurity among white voters during the last election, white families in the U.S. are doing pretty well for themselves. In 2014, the median income for white households was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for black households. Among households headed by someone with a college degree, the median income for whites was $106,600, much higher than the $82,300 median income for blacks.
An even starker measure of inequality than income, and a more enduring one, is wealth. Think about the difference this way: Income is what you get weekly or monthly, and wealth is what you would have if your income stopped. Even average white families have a huge wealth advantage, but they don’t realize it. Census data reveals that the median assets of white families amounted $132,483 in 2013, compared to just $9,211 for black families. Yet white Americans, and especially higher-income whites, vastly overestimate the progress toward economic equality between blacks and whites, according to a 2017 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
White families are twice as likely to be millionaires as they were a generation ago. The richest 100 families control more wealth than all the black people in the U.S. The list of the 10 richest families in the U.S. looks like an L.L. Bean catalog: White people are everywhere. The bootstrap lie would have you believe that these 10 families worked harder or smarter than everyone else and that’s why they have so much wealth. But the current members of the 10 richest families didn’t earn all that money themselves. All 10 are on that list because they inherited wealth from a rich, white forebear.
During the early 20th century, instituting a significant tax on large inherited estates was viewed as a major win for the progressive effort to reduce the gap between rich and poor. A hundred years later, and after a 20-year campaign by the right, the “estate tax” has been rebranded as the “death tax.” Radical anti-tax libertarians like Grover Norquist would have us believe that “eliminating the death tax” will “create jobs,” even though there’s little evidence to support such claims. Doing away with the estate tax also keeps billions out of the tax base ― billions that could be used to help decrease inequality ― while increasing the federal debt by between $1.9 trillion and $2.2 trillion over the next decade. Nonetheless, making it easier for the wealthiest white families to pass on their assets is a dearly beloved plank in the GOP’s agenda; the latest tax legislation was written to give billions more to these few families.
While the estate tax applies to only a tiny fraction of American families, middle-class white families hoard wealth, too. For them, the wealth is in their houses.
A recent Center for American Progress report provides more data on this: For 2016, the median wealth for black families was $17,600 and for Latinx families it was $20,700. The median wealth for white families was $171,000. Most of this difference can be attributed to home ownership. For the majority of white families, their greatest asset is their home, and they’re far more likely than families of color to own a home.
The wage gap contributes significantly to the wealth gap. White men are still paid more than every other racial and gender group, and white women are the highest paid group of women. Better wages mean more money to invest in home equity. At the same time, black families have been systematically ripped off in the housing market. Because of the racist practices of the Federal Housing Administration, banks and real estate agents ― like redlining, racially restrictive covenants and racial steering by real estate agents ― home ownership continues to work in favor of white families.
Even the language of the “wealth gap” in the well-meaning Center for American Progress report misses the role that white families play in perpetuating these inequalities. The report describes blacks as “struggl[ing] to keep pace with their white counterparts,” which makes the wealth gap sound like a failure on the part of black families to “keep pace.” The truth is that white families took advantage ― and continue to take advantage ― of racist housing policies and pass the resulting equity on to their (presumably white) children.
I’ve witnessed the way white people pass on their housing wealth up close. Around the same time that I first moved to New York City and discovered that I couldn’t actually afford to pay my rent on an assistant professor’s salary, a colleague of mine ― a white woman like myself ― bought an entire brownstone in Brooklyn. She made the same crappy salary I did, but she was different from me in two ways. She’d had the good sense to have middle-class parents who died properly, with insurance benefits and home equity. And she’d married a higher-earning white man. She and her husband went on to have a couple of children and will, I expect, pass the equity in their single-family-dwelling brownstone on to them. My former colleague and her husband are good people and progressive liberals. And they are contributing to the racial wealth gap.
Of course, the American dream that’s been sold to us is one of home ownership and of people being able to provide for their families. But taking care of people we love can’t be an excuse to actively disadvantage other people’s children. White parents who want the best for their kids must find a way to give it to them without pulling up the ladder behind them. To point this out is not to call all white people with kids bad parents; it is to remind them that any action on behalf of one’s own family has consequences beyond it.
Consider the issue of school segregation, a classic case of white families ― especially white mothers ― hoarding resources for their children at the expense of their non-white peers. Reporter Nikole Hannah Jones has documented white parents’ efforts to fight the desegregation of public schools, a fight that recalls the black-and-white photographs of the 1960s and the busing riots of the 1970s, but that persists today, even in self-proclaimed liberal communities.
The problem of wide gaps in school funding is directly linked to housing segregation, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We could fund all schools equally so that all children had the same quality education. Instead, we have built ― and white families continue to insist upon ― a system in which being able to afford a more expensive house means you can send your child to a better school. That’s a form of hoarding of opportunity for the children in one community at the expense of all the children.
When we form families, we draw a circle around the people we care about. Those within the circle are deserving of our fullest care; those outside, less so. That circle of kinship represents love and acceptance. Too often, it also facilitates hostility and exclusion.
Watching the parade of indicted son-in-laws and dutiful daughters defending their deep-pocketed white benefactor fathers, I am reminded of what James Baldwin said about the invention of whiteness and what he called the “Negro problem.” He wrote, “This problem, which [white people] invented, in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them.”
Jessie Daniels is a Professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.