The gap between Black and white household [accumulated] wealth quadrupled from 1984 to 2007, totally discrediting the conventional wisdom that the U.S. is slowly and fitfully moving towards racial equality, or some rough economic parity between the races. Like most American myths, it’s the direct opposite of the truth. When measured over decades, Blacks are being propelled economically downward relative to whites at quickening speed, according to a new study by Brandeis University.
The gap between Black and white households ballooned during the 23-year study period, as white families went from a median of about $22,000 in wealth to $100,000 – a gain of $78,000. In the same period, Black household wealth inched up from a base of $2,000 per family to only $5,000. The sweat and toil of an entire generation had netted Black families only $3,000 additional dollars, while white families emerged from the period with a net worth of 100 grand that can be used to send a couple of kids to college, make investments, help out other family members, or contribute to the larger (white) community. The typical Black family has no such options. [The study did not take property ownership into account. If property were included, the disparity would be larger.]
Viewed another way, the median white family was 11 times richer than the median Black family in 1984 ($2,000 vs. $22,000). By 2007, the white household had become 20 times richer than its Black counterpart ($5,000 vs. $100,000).
Any way one measures it, the numbers show African Americans are tumbling out of the nation’s economic orbit, wealth-wise, on a trajectory that can never achieve parity with whites. I repeat: never.
On the campaign trail in 2007, Barack Obama flippantly declared that African Americans had “already come 90 percent of the way” to equality, with only 10 percent more to go. Whatever the future president was thinking, it wasn’t economics. The meter of progress is running backwards on Black America, toward greater inequality and relative poverty. Everything else you’ve heard is propaganda.
The Brandeis study, conducted by the university’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy, showed that upper income Blacks fell even farther behind their white peers than lower income Blacks. During the survey period, higher income Blacks saw their wealth drop from $25,000 to just $18,000, while their white counterparts wealth soared to $240,000.
Black folks have been integrated long enough to know that the white family didn’t get richer by a quarter million dollars because they were smarter than the Black family. Privilege, especially cumulative privilege over generations, works wonders, like compound interest only better. Whites are both collectively privileged and capable of bestowing an endless stream of privileges on each other, while Blacks are deliberately positioned outside of the stream, and are preyed upon as a group by powerful (white) financial forces that profit from the wealth differential.
The Brandies report recognizes the “powerful role of persistent discrimination in housing, credit and labor markets” – that is, the institutionally racist crimes of finance capital. Had the survey continued past 2007, the carnage of the Great Recession would have revealed even more dramatically the incredibly shrinking nature of Black wealth in the current era.
Enemies of all colors and sly servants of the rich will use the news of the evaporation of African American wealth to heap blame on Black “culture.” This “shaming” strategy is designed to keep Blacks looking inward for the source of their woes, and to simultaneously despair of finding salvation in our own capacity for group agency. Meanwhile, the Lords of Capital devour us like piranhas – quicker than they do whites, who are padded with the fat of relative privilege – $95,000 worth of it, the racial wealth spread of 23 years.
Although Black parity with whites has never been on the horizon, impatient whites have insisted since 1969 or thereabouts that “it’s time” African Americans were made to “stand or fall” on their own, minus all the imagined assistance Blacks have supposedly received from phantom federal and state agencies. After all, say the anxious whites, how long is society (meaning themselves) supposed to pay for the slavery and segregation of the past? Most white folks – and President Obama – believe, or pretend to believe, that whatever legitimate grievances Blacks might harbor against the United States stem from circumstances deep in the past. The only question is, when will Blacks finally “get over it?”
The Brandies study shows that the racial wealth gap, although historically rooted in slavery and Jim Crow oppressions, has grown dramatically under post-civil rights era conditions. The gap is not simply a legacy of some ancient American apartheid, but a product of the recent past and of the present. This is a different paradigm, entirely, in which past racial wrongs are compounded by additional layers of institutionalized anti-Black behavior in the 1980s, 90s and in the 21st century –wounds so harmful they set African Americans on a backward course in terms of wealth accumulation.
In 2004, United for a Fair Economy came out with the first of its annual “State of the Dream” reports. Readers were shocked out of complacency by data that showed Blacks would not reach wealth parity with whites until the year 2099. It was surely a bummer to realize that no one then alive would see the “promised land” of evenly matched Black and white median household wealth. But at least the study indicated that “we, as a people” would eventually get there, as someone famous once predicted. There are no such condolences in the Brandies data. At the rate Blacks have been falling behind in wealth since the mid-80s, the Black and white median paths will diverge ever farther, never to connect under this system of economic and political rule. Blacks cannot shop or invest or save or borrow our way to a just society. Social justice and true human equality can only be achieved through our collective political action in opposition to the current order – by any means necessary, as another famous man once urged.