Racism, wealth, and payback

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remind others (and myself) about the ongoing consequences of American slavery and other elements of our racialized past. In yesterday’s The Root, William Darity (Duke) and Kirsten Mullen remind us of a very important dynamic that most of us miss – The Big Payback:

. . . The effects of American racism are pernicious. To illustrate, we would like to examine just one area of adversity for African Americans—accumulating and passing wealth to subsequent generations.

Estimates derived from the 2002 Survey of Income and Program Participation indicate that median white household net worth is about $90,000 and median black household net worth is about $6,000. Black profligacy or exceptionally poor black portfolio management cannot explain this staggering disparity. Studies by economists Maury Gittelman (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Edward N. Wolff (New York University), Ngina Chiteji (Skidmore College) and Darrick Hamilton (The New School) show that at each income level, blacks have a savings rate at least as high as whites and earn a slightly higher rate of return on their portfolios.

The primary source of individual wealth today is either an inheritance or a transfer of resources from living relatives. We don’t typically view parental gifts to newborn children, young couples purchasing their first house or sons and daughters enrolled in college or university as transfers of wealth. But that is precisely what they are.

African Americans have not been able to make major transfers in wealth across generations because they have been denied the capacity to accumulate wealth. . .

Read more of The Big Payback

Note that this is just one tangible consequence of slavery and racism. Slave owners’ propensity for breaking up families strikes me as another evil affliction that likely had lingering effects for several generations.

But poverty brings with it enough challenges of its own. The book Blaming the Victim by William Ryan comes to mind. While this book is now dated (1970s), its way of exposing the lies we tell ourselves about race, poverty, the poor, and the powerless makes it a classic. It’s not unusual for me to hear some of this same distorted thinking applied to poorer Africans by some of my Western friends.

Regarding wealth transfer: My own parents, being missionaries, didn’t have a whole lot to pass on to me, but there were some key “tipping points” where small infusions of inherited “wealth” (little as it may have seemed) paid huge dividends in the long run. Sometimes it was as little as a couple hundred dollars which freed me to pursue opportunities which in turn led to greater opportunities. At other times, it was a car that allowed me to take a better jobs. The education help was priceless.

I know the topic of reparations is complicated; most of us don’t want to give up what little we think we have rightfully earned, but true reconciliation and justice will have a price. Rrom now on, let’s at least not pretend that the playing field has been level. Those who have “made it” have had to overcome huge odds. We’ve got a long ways to go; the majority of us have benefited from slavery and racism in ways we don’t even realize – and don’t want to think about.

UPDATE: Rereading racism as a theological problem (a post by Celucien L. Joseph), I saw that he makes some important points about grappling with our past:

So there’s an urgent need for all of us to take a step forward to bring an effective healing to this great sin. By not engaging about the problem of racism, contemporary theologians and scholars are treating “the nation’s violent racist past as if it were dead” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 132). The great American poet, William Faulkner reminds us, “the past never dead; it is not even past.” In other words, “There can be no racial healing without dialogue, without ending the white silence on racism. There can be no reconciliation without honest and frank conversation” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 136). White theologians, in particular, need to “address the radical contradiction that racism creates for Christian theology… and need to write about slavery, colonialism, segregation, and the profound cultural link these horrible crimes created between white supremacy and Christianity” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 130).

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One thought on “Racism, wealth, and payback

  1. Wylie Clough says:

    Truth is throughout the article but inheritance is not a race issue at this point. It is a wealth issue and does not account for all of the issues you described. No doubt that even today slavery impacts us as a nation and because for one the first times race was a factor in slavery we have had difficulty healing when other nation did so much easier. Those other nations did not have the dynamic of race in their slave trade and therefore no daily reminder of it once abolished. My ancestors have all been working class and have yet to leave any property and more commonly have left debt that has in some cases been passed on however crazy and unfair that thought sounds.

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