The Wealth Gap: Why Dr. King's Dream Is Unfinished

Much of the racial wealth gap is a result of deliberate policy choices, both by government and the private sector. And because wealth can be handed down from generation to generation, the effects linger long after discriminatory policies change.
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Wealth is a subject we need to talk about, but it makes Americans uncomfortable. Indeed, we just had a teachable moment about wealth with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but most of the mass media chose to look the other way.

Many outlets gave at least a nod to Martin Luther King Jr.'s emphasis on economic inequality, but many, like the Washington Post, used a narrow lens. The Post made a brief mention of wealth, but focused mainly on statistics tracking income and unemployment.

As the Post noted, "In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites."

That's bad, but the figures for wealth are even worse.

By "wealth," I don't mean riches. Very few Americans of any race have spare billions sitting around. I mean the day-to-day accumulation of assets like savings accounts and home equity that give families a financial cushion. It's wealth that lets you get by if you unexpectedly lose your job, or when a sudden illness costs thousands in medical expenses your insurance doesn't cover. It's wealth that lets you pass something on to your children and give them a financial head start into adulthood.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz rightly zeroed in on wealth in an online commentary for the New York Times:

"The Great Recession of 2007-9 was particularly hard on African-Americans (as it typically is on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum). They saw their median wealth fall by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, more than three times that of whites: a record gap. But the so-called recovery has been little more than a chimera -- with more than 100 percent of the gains going to the top 1 percent -- a group where, needless to say, African-Americans cannot be found in large numbers."

According to the latest U.S. Census figures on household wealth, for every dollar a white family in America has, the median Latino family has barely seven cents and the median African American family has less than six cents.

Dr. King understood that we did not get to this situation by accident. Much of the racial wealth gap is a result of deliberate policy choices, both by government and the private sector. And because wealth can be handed down from generation to generation, the effects linger long after discriminatory policies change.

Jim Crow laws in the south kept most African Americans locked into an economic underclass. In the north, the process was more subtle but just as real, with bank redlining and federal government housing policies preventing people of color (and often not just African Americans) from buying homes in white neighborhoods, relegating them to more rundown communities where property values didn't rise like they did on the white side of town.

San Francisco, for example, didn't have the sort of legally enforced segregation seen in Alabama or Mississippi, and yet in the early 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain -- then playing for the Warriors and arguably the biggest NBA star of the day -- could not buy a home in a white neighborhood.

And even when housing discrimination was outlawed, it often continued on the sly. A white colleague recalls house-hunting with his parents in southern California in the early 1970s, hearing real estate agents casually discussing the tricks they used to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods. Because the homes that people of color were allowed to buy didn't appreciate as much, today their descendants have less wealth with which to prepare for emergencies or send their kids to college.

My own experience of wealth is somewhere in the middle. My dad grew up in India, the youngest of seven and with very little money, but a combination of good fortune and hard work helped him make it to a top college there, where he got his masters in engineering. That helped him land a good job that brought him to the U.S., where he worked hard and sacrificed to make sure that we didn't struggle like he did. He and my mom managed to send me and my brother to college as undergrads without accumulating a large student loan debt. I do have some debt from grad school, but am still in a much better place than many because my parents could provide a safety net.

Some of my closest friends from college didn't have that financial safety net. Their student loans loom over them like a gathering storm, impacting many decisions they have made since graduating.

My parents are my heroes because they did everything in their power to ensure that my brother and I would have security and success when we got older. And they succeeded. But what breaks my heart is that my friends' parents are equally committed to their kids and worked just as hard, but couldn't overcome the institutional inequities that hold so many back.

Don't get me wrong, my friends are doing well, but they have fewer choices and more obstacles in front of them as they start planning for their futures.

That's one of the unseen effects of the racial wealth gap: It limits the choices available to our young people. If you leave college with a mountain of debt, the need to repay that debt while keeping the lights on can force you into a career that isn't what you really want, but seems sure of paying the bills. How many artists, writers, and social justice organizers have our communities lost because of this? How many James Baldwins or Cesar Chavezes have we been deprived of?

I'm now a mother, and I want my son to have choices when he grows up: what kind of school he wants to go to, what he wishes to study, where he wants to live, what sort of career he pursues. Our hope as parents is that the support we can give our kids grows with each generation, that every generation has doors open to them that their parents didn't have.

Until America develops policies to address the massive racial wealth gap that two centuries of policy choices created, far too many of those doors will stay closed.

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