The yawning wealth gap between black and white families is one of the starkest legacies of America’s history of racist social policymaking. As far as simple statistical comparisons go, I can’t recall any representations of it as striking as this chart from a recent report by the left-wing think tank Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. As it shows, the median white household headed by a high-school dropout is wealthier today than the median black household headed by someone who went to college. The latter category includes those who at least attended a two- or four-year college, but not graduate degree holders.
That’s how much of a head start white Americans have. The median black American who pursues higher education is still poorer, judged by net worth, than a white person who never finished 12th grade.
I’m guessing that this stat is driven partly by debt—net worth measures a household’s assets minus its liabilities, and black students tend to borrow heavily to attend college. Nonetheless, it’s part of a larger pattern that Demos and IASP identify in which black families tend to have a net worth that’s lower, or roughly equal to, white families who have made what a lot of people might consider worse life decisions. Two-parent black families have a lower median net worth than white single parents ($16,000 vs. $35,800); black Americans younger than 55 who work full time have an only slightly higher median net worth than whites who work part time ($10,800 vs. $9,200). They also note research showing that black families tend to spend less than whites in similar income brackets, so thrift doesn’t appear to be the issue.
What accounts for these differences then? One major factor is that middle-class white families have been able to accumulate some wealth over generations, whereas black families have been less able to do so thanks to policies like redlining that prevented them from buying homes and building equity. (This, as you might remember, was the crux Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations.)
“Many popular explanations for racial economic inequality overlook these deep roots, asserting that wealth disparities must be solely the result of individual life choices and personal achievements,” the authors write. “The misconception that personal responsibility accounts for the racial wealth gap is an obstacle to the policies that could effectively address racial disparities.”
In other words, people need to understand that even when black families make the “right” choices, they still end up behind.