Most media coverage of racial injustice has understandably focused on our country’s unfair policing and criminal justice system. But to fully understand the current reality of racial inequality in America, we also need to take an honest look at our nation’s shocking wealth disparities.
Wealth — the total assets a family owns after the bills are paid — is the safety net we all need to help us get through the tough times and invest in our futures. And its polarization along racial lines is striking.
The average wealth for white households is $656,000. For Latinos it’s $98,000, and for black households it’s just $85,000. The average wealth of black and Latinos combined still doesn’t come close to half of white wealth.
And while white wealth continues to grow substantially, any gains in black and Latino wealth pale in comparison. Current estimates show that if nothing changes, the racial wealth divide will grow to $1 million by 2043.
In fact, it’ll take the average black family 228 years to accrue the same amount of wealth that white families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the centuries-long institution of slavery in the U.S. For Latinos, it’ll take 84 years to reach average white wealth today.
Generations of racial discrimination in programs like housing and government benefits are now reflected in dismal bank statements and paltry retirement funds for blacks and Latinos.
In particular, racial bias in mortgage lending — known as redlining — has consistently barred communities of color from the wealth-building train, resulting in low homeownership rates.
After World War II, for example, predominately white families received government-subsidized mortgages that allowed them to purchase homes, while black families didn’t. The result has played out over generations: Today, more than 70 percent of whites own homes, compared with only 41 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Latinos.
For many blacks and Latinos, a lack of assets has contributed to economic insecurity and sometimes-heartbreaking reversals of fortune. This explains the dizzying disparities in retirement savings: The average white household in the U.S. today has $130,000 in retirement funds, while average black and Latino households have $19,000 and $12,300, respectively.
The younger generation isn’t doing any better. College debt is rising for all races, and nearly half the workforce earns less than $15 an hour — barely enough to pay the bills.
The structures in place driving these inequalities, like tax cuts for the wealthy and global trade deals that drive down wages, amplify existing racial wealth divisions. They pit low-wage workers of all races against each other, leaving us vulnerable to the politics of blame and deflection.
The good news is we can reverse these trends through public policies that both reduce overall inequality and close the racial wealth divide.
First, we should fix the upside-down system of tax incentives that currently flows almost exclusively to wealthy households. We should redirect the $650 billion a year Congress allocates in tax subsidies to support first-time homebuyers and first-generation college students.
Additionally, taxing multi-million dollar inheritances and investing in tuition-free higher education are approaches that can expand wealth and opportunity for everyone.
We can reverse the racial wealth divide if we understand our history of racial discrimination and press lawmakers to stand on the side of opportunity, not inequality.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammed directs the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Enterprise Development. Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good (www.inequality.org), and also a co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good.