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Most Americans believe active discrimination is a declining concern. They believe that despite the challenges our society currently faces, we are at least past the era of outright and explicit exclusion. The case for this belief rests on the fact that black Americans and other nonwhites have seen increased opportunities for professional advancement since the civil rights movement, as well as a growing prominence in American life. Our culture has also by now generally accepted inclusive principles. It helps, too, that this belief fits our national narrative of progress: our broad sense that, despite lingering conflicts and resentments, the present is a more just and humane place than the past and that the future shows the same promise.
But it isn’t true. Things may actually be getting worse, and not just in the casual interactions that comprise daily existence. There is hard evidence that explicit racial discrimination remains a major part of American life in the early 21st century.
Just look at the startling results of a recent meta-analysis of available research into job market discrimination that found “no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years.” After identifying all existing field experiments (published or unpublished) on labor market discrimination in the U.S, the researchers narrowed their field of inquiry to 24 studies containing 30 different estimates of discrimination against blacks and Latinos since 1989—a data set representing tens of thousands of applications submitted for tens of thousands of jobs. In analyzing that data, what they found was stasis. Throughout the period, whites received an average 36 percent more job callbacks than blacks, and 24 percent more than Latinos. “Contrary to widespread assumptions about the declining significance of race, the magnitude and consistency of discrimination we observe over time is a sobering counterpoint,” they conclude, while offering the caveat and possibility that discrimination diminished in the two decades prior to 1989. If true, that still leaves the United States with pervasive discrimination in hiring, a phenomenon that may explain part of the racial employment gap, which leaves black Americans with double the unemployment of white Americans, in good times and bad.
How do we square this reality of discrimination with the acceptance of racially egalitarian views among white Americans? The short answer is that there’s a disconnect. Many white Americans express opposition to the most hateful forms of racism while holding prejudiced views and facilitating racist behavior. A new Reuters-Ipsos poll, taken in the aftermath of August’s violent neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, illustrates this paradox, showing both wide condemnation of white supremacists and substantial support for white nationalist slogans. Although 89 percent of respondents agreed that “all races should be treated equally”—and 70 percent agreed that “all races are equal”—35 percent of whites said that America must “protect and preserve its White European Heritage” and 47 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
It’s possible this disconnect stems from the profound segregation that still shapes and defines life in the United States. Even if they live in diverse metropolitan areas, most white Americans still live in largely white neighborhoods and suburbs (some white by circumstance, others by policy, intimidation, and worse), send their children to white schools, and attend white churches. Their actual contact with nonwhites is minimal and circumscribed, an environment that can inculcate discriminatory beliefs, habits of mind, and behaviors, even as they endorse America’s egalitarian civic creed.
More pressing than the sociology of white racism, however, is its practical effects: a widening wealth gap between blacks and whites. Between 1983 and 2013, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700), and the median Latino household declined 50 percent (from $4,000 to $2,000). At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800. It’s an almost unbelievable contrast, and by 2020, black and Latino households are projected to lose even more wealth: 18 percent for the former, 12 percent for the latter. After those declines, the median white household will own 86 times more wealth than its black counterpart, and 68 times more wealth than its Latino one. This isn’t a wealth gap—it’s a wealth chasm.
If nothing is done, that chasm will grow larger. By 2024, “the continued rise in racial wealth inequality between median black, Latino and white households is projected to lead White households to own 99 and 75 times more wealth than their black and Latino counterparts, respectively.” Even black incomes are stagnant and declining: The median black household makes substantially less today than it did in 2000. And if the wealth gap is left unaddressed, then by 2053, median household wealth for whites will grow to $137,000, while that for blacks will hit zero.
The myth of “post-racialism” has by now largely been dispelled, in part because of movements like Black Lives Matter—as well as the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. And there seems to be a growing awareness that “colorblindness” does more to entrench racial disadvantage than rectify it. Thankfully, there are policies that can begin to address this profound racial wealth gap. But we have yet to have any kind of discussion about it, even as we barrel toward a world where most blacks and Latinos live on the edge of immiseration. The racial wealth gap isn’t yet a national priority. It needs to be.