Column, 597 words

Black Wealth Matters

For generations, white households have enjoyed far greater access to wealth and security than their black counterparts.

Chuck Collins

As protesters march through our cities to remind us that black lives matter, grievances about our racially fractured society extend far beyond flashpoints over police violence.

What is the state of the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about, particularly as it relates to economic opportunity?

Racial inequality in earnings remains persistent. African-American workers under 35 earn only 75 cents on the dollar compared to their white contemporaries. Latinos earn only 68 cents.

Examining income alone, however, is like tracking the weather. If you want to explore the true tectonic shifts of the earth, you have to look at wealth and net worth — that is, what people own minus what they owe.

There’s a high correlation between wealth and economic security. Wealth in the form of savings, investments, and homes provides a cushion to fall back on in the face of hardship. Homeownership in particular is a foundational asset, something to pass on to one’s children.

Suffocating Black Wealth, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Suffocating Black Wealth, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The racial wealth gap has persisted for decades. It widened following the Great Recession.

According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households in 2013 was a stunning 13 times greater than the median wealth of black households — up from eight times greater in 2010. White households had 10 times more wealth than Latino households.

While people of all races saw their net worth implode during the recession, recovery has come much more quickly to whites. The wealth divide is growing at an alarming rate today, with median wealth tumbling downward for people of color while ticking slightly upward for whites.

This is partially because whites tend to own more financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, which have rebounded since 2009. Home values, meanwhile — which represent the largest share of assets for households of color — haven’t recovered at the same rate.

Behind these statistics are stories of lives under stress, of people losing homes, jobs, savings, and stability. The collapse of middle class wealth has touched people of all races, but it has hit communities of color the hardest.

“It is time for all of us to tell each other the truth,” Dr. King wrote in 1967, “about who and what have brought the Negro to the condition of deprivation against which he struggles today.”

Such dramatic shifts in racial wealth disparities can’t be explained simply in terms of the latest recession. They’re part of a legacy of racial discrimination in asset building that dates back to the first great dispossession, when black people were treated as someone else’s property.

Even a century after the formal end of slavery, African Americans were largely excluded from programs that helped build middle-class wealth. That led historian Ira Katznelson to characterize such initiatives as “white affirmative action.”

In the decade following World War II, our nation made unprecedented public investments to subsidize debt-free college education and low-cost mortgages. These wealth-building measures benefited millions of mostly white households.

People of color, facing overt discrimination in mortgage lending and separate-and-unequal school systems throughout the United States, generally didn’t share these benefits. They were left standing at the railway station as the express train to the middle class left.

White homeownership rates eventually rose to as high as 75 percent, while black rates peaked at 46 percent. This 30-point gap, which remains intact today, means generations of white families have enjoyed access to wealth that has long eluded their black counterparts.

Black wealth matters. Until we tell each other the truth about the racial wealth divide, King’s dream will remain deferred.

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of He is the co-author, with Bill Gates Sr., of Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.
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  • Deahdra Henderson

    I find it disheartening that what Chuck is writing about now is as it was twenty, thirty years ago when I was doing my organizing work. We have to get high schools and colleges/universities to teach what some of us are weary of teaching and not being heard.

    • Deborah Jane

      Hi! Do you happen to teach wealth principles?

  • Sam

    Yes, let the Truth be told. Many White Americans do not what to believe this and understand that the social, mental, psychological, and economic conditions of Black Americans today living in poverty (mentally and physically) is a direct result of the racism, prejudice, and deliberate segregation and discrimination of years past. The greed of inequality for so many years has led our country into the state in which we currently have of such poverty and income disparities amongst different races of Americans. In order to begin to reverse this condition, change must start in the communities, education/ prison systems, media/ entertainment industries, etc. to ‘Change the Mindset’ of individuals by teaching personal & character development to heal the hearts and minds of people. Then, current/ future generations may become renewed in their view of themselves/ others, the world around them, and the possibilities that exists for them. It is ALL of us that need some renewing in our thinking to affect positive change in this country.

  • spritzler
  • spritzler

    My article (link is below) is about how this racial discrimination harms not only the direct victims but also ordinary “white” people. An injury to one is an injury to all.

  • Al Pops

    Black wealth matters???? Just other reason for black people to be the victim again

    • Classyle Jenkins

      Black people have been victimized by the government in this country. It’s called history. After WW2 when the GI’s returned home, there was a massive housing shortage in America. So the government created programs that specifically excluded black people and gave hundreds of billions of dollars of federally backed loans exclusively to white people (FHA and VA mortgages). White lenders, along with the federal government then began Redlining black communities and literally created the black ghettos you see all across this country. They then also began the process of blockbusting to further make it impossible for black people to own property while white neighborhoods were being built all over this country at the expense of the black tax payer.

      But of course white people in America never take personal responsibility for their actions, so of course you’d write the garbage you’re spewing.

    • Deborah Jane

      STOP. When people make insensitive remarks like this it makes me cringe. Let me be clear Sir – Black people are the cornerstone of American capitalism. America (particularly white america) became wealthy because of 200 years of unpaid slave labor of black Americans. White exploitation of Black Americans is what made white American rich. That is the wealth gap that is still in place. So does black wealth matter? Of Course it Does. To demand that it matters is not playing the “victim” at all -it is demanding Justice for centuries of injustice. Again, white Americans have benefited richly for centuries of black labor. That is a FACT. It is time for black Americans to benefit off of their own black labor, and to share In the collective wealth of this country. That is part of MLK’s Dream. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King said. So,until black wealth matters to YOU sir, you are negating the very principle of equality that Dr. King sacrificed his life for – and the very principles that YOU benefit from. Now, does that matter to you?