According to the episode ‘The Racial Wealth Gap’ on Vox’s Netflix series ‘Explained’, the median white household’s savings and assets, minus their debts is $171,000. On the other hand, the median black households savings and assets subtracted by their debts is $17,600. This already large gap ($153,400) is still increasing. Why is this? It is not because white families work harder than black families. This issue goes back to hundreds of years ago.
In 1865, as the civil war was coming to an end, General Sherman met with 20 black leaders and later passed ‘Special Order Number 15’. This bill was meant to permit black families access to a plot of 40 acres of land and a mule. However, soon after, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his successor Andrew Jackson undid this new path to freedom and equality, meaning the thousands who had received land were now evicted. America was so close to making progress, but it was all taken away. Many white people, including President Andrew Jackson, believed there was discrimination against white people, ‘in favor of the negro’. This is despite black slaves creating wealth for their owners for over 200 years. None of this wealth was ever returned to black families.
Decades after the civil war had ended, the government practised redlining, where the city was divided into desirable or undesirable sections for investment. As a result, many black neighbourhoods were deprived of access to private and public investment. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt passed ‘the New Deal’ that eased the burden of debt (gave mortgage credit to the whole population). But despite that, the Federal Housing Administration did not insure mortgages in neighbourhoods they deemed too risky. Risky became synonymous with race. Unfortunately, banks and insurance companies used redlining to refuse black people loans and more services. This meant black families were refused the facilities to buy a house, as their neighbourhoods were redlined. In turn, it was even more difficult for black families to increase their wealth. Additionally, at this time, black people were not allowed to go to many colleges, so higher education was out of the question. However, white people had access to both services from the bank and higher education, resulting in their wealth increasing even further. The ‘Explained’ episode states, ‘For the American middle class, home equity accounts for around two-thirds of wealth’. African-Americans were deprived of these two-thirds. Many white American families bought a house 50 years ago which is now around 50 times the price. Consequently, their descendants are provided with countless opportunities that their black counterparts are denied. In 1968, housing discrimination was prohibited on paper, but that did not translate to reality. According to act.tv’s video about systemic racism, even in the 1980s, a study done in Atlanta indicated banks were more likely to lend money to low-income white families than middle or upper-income black families. The video also explains redlining still has lasting impacts in ‘major cities like Chicago today’. The New York Times states that ‘black families in America earn $57.30 for every $100 in white family income’. They go on to add that ‘for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold $5.04’. Even today, a great difference can be seen between neighbourhoods, and in turn, schools. School district funding comes from property taxes, meaning children in poor neighbourhood’s schooling will have far less money and resources being poured into it. This would mean schools in richer neighbourhoods are spacious, teachers are paid well and students have access to excellent tutors, extracurricular activities and resources, while the opposite would go for schools in poorer neighbourhoods.
In the 1990s, things started to look up and the wealth gap started to close. Yet again, African-Americans got the short end of the stick. As stated by the ‘Explained’ episode, black people were ‘twice as likely as white Americans to get subprime loans’. Subprime loans start off cheap, but have very high interest, making them expensive. These loans are meant for borrowers that have low credit ratings, but many black borrowers with good credit were given subprime loans. Wells Fargo targetted African-Americans. In the 2008 stock crisis, as claimed by Pew Research, black communities lost 53% of their wealth.
Another element that plays a large role in the racial wealth gap is how graduates spend their money. As mentioned before, most African-Americans were denied access to higher education. This means many grandparents of graduates today may not have gone to college. Many relatives of black degree holders are still struggling and need help, which the graduates are willing to provide. Many white graduates, contrarily, are already in networks, as their parents and grandparents have paved the way for them.
Furthermore, implicit bias is one of the main factors adding to systemic racism. The act.tv video references a Harvard study called ‘Whitened Resumes: Race and Self Preservation in the Labor Market’ that discovered ‘white’ sounding names receive double the number of interview requests as identical resumes with ‘black’ sounding names. This directly relates to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that shows the black rate of unemployment is around twice the white unemployment rate.
An important way we can work together in taking down systemic racism is by becoming conscious of your own implicit biases and then educating yourself. Both videos previously mentioned (the ‘Explained’ series on Netflix and act.tv’s breakdown of systemic racism) are a great start. Podcasts, such as ‘About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge’ and ‘Have You Heard George’s Podcast?’ are very informative.
It is also essential that we acknowledge the impacts of slavery and Jim Crow laws are still being faced today. Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘It is obvious if a man is entered at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat to catch up with his fellow runner’. We should support systemic changes by signing petitions, making donations and spreading awareness for causes such as protecting voter rights, reforming the criminal justice system and increasing public school funding while making it independent from property taxes. This will help ensure people of all different backgrounds are treated equally and have equal access to resources.