by Jessicah Pierre
January 15th marked what would’ve been Dr. Martin Luther King’s 90th birthday.
Most known for his famous “I Have Dream Speech,” King envisioned a future in which deep racial inequalities — including deep economic inequality — were eradicated. He worked tirelessly towards that mission.
Over 50 years after his assassination, sensational media stories have focused heavily on the black unemployment rate, which has reached historic lows.
President Trump was quick to claim credit for this improvement last year, tweeting: “Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!” (The rapper had recently criticized the president for a racist statement about African countries.)
These headlines (and boasts) don’t tell the whole story, though. Most importantly, they exclude data on overall wealth — a critical measure of financial security. Wealth buffers families from the ups and downs of income changes and economic cycles, and allows households to take advantage of opportunities.
A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies takes a more holistic look at where the country is in terms of racial economic parity. It reveals deep, pervasive, and ongoing racial economic division.
The study shows that wealth is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands over time. And though working white people also struggle, the hands at the very top are overwhelmingly white. Far from closing, America’s polarizing racial wealth divide is continuing to grow between white households and households of color.
Over the past three decades, the report notes, “the median black family saw their wealth drop by a whopping 50 percent, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household.”
King foreshadowed that if we maintain our exploitative economic and political systems, then we’d get not only racial apartheid, but economic apartheid as well.
And unfortunately, that is exactly where we’re heading without systemic change. While one in five Americans of any race have zero or even negative wealth, in the last 30 years we’ve seen the number of households with $10 million or more skyrocket by 856 percent.
The widening of the racial wealth divide has coincided with the extreme concentration of U.S. wealth. We’re currently living in an economy where the Forbes 400 own more wealth than all black households, plus a quarter of Latino households, combined.
As much as we cite the vision that MLK laid out for America, decades later we’ve not moved in the right direction.
This dynamic is the result of public policies that favor the wealthy, not the “invisible hand” of the market. This has implications for the racial wealth divide, as well as the entire economy. As the U.S. diversifies, these inequalities are actually driving down America’s total median wealth — and giving the already rich that much more of a leg up over everyone else.
As the mid-20th century civil rights movement recognized, a major shift in economic policy is needed to end the racial inequality of the past and create a new nation with opportunity for all. Inaction — or worse, repeating the same mistakes that led to this situation — will simply widen the divide and create greater economic instability for the country at large. And I’ll be writing this same piece again next year.
Jessicah Pierre is the inequality media specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies.
I see it differently. I believe the wealth has come from thousands of successful people who have come up with entrepreneurial ideas for businesses born on the Internet and have grown exponentially in the past 10 years or more.I am not wealthy by no means and struggle to stay solvent in my retirement but I had to work many years with two to three jobs just to make ends meet while raising a family AND put away for my retirement. The problem with most people today is that they spend every last penny they make on “stuff” instead of sacrificing a little today to have a better tomorrow.
Brandon Cross says
Growing up my family was in the lower economic class.
As an example, we didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was eight years old.
I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s during the civil rights era.
During this period, I witnessed a huge effort to help plight of people of color.
I commend these efforts yet, as a poor white person little or none of these opportunities were afforded me nor others like me.
I was the first in my family and extended family to graduate from high school, college and graduate school.
I was never afforded extra opportunities because I was a poor white boy. I did witness, during this time, people of color and same economic position as I received far greater consideration than I did.
Affirmative action, although good for minorities of color, actually greatly reduced opportunities for poor white folks like me.when I began entry into the work force I battled with the fact I was’nt black, a female, or Hispanic.
I have dealt with inequality all my life… I am not a bigot or racist, but truly, like many others like me, a victim of social inequality.
I don’t think I am the only one that has had these experiences?
The TPG says
MLK’s dream has been violated by the Trump nightmare. Trump, with the full support of the Republican Party, has turned America against the poor, the displaced and the world’s people of color with policies and prejudices to put them back where they stood 100 years ago. Republicans have never embraced equal justice, equal opportunity or the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” promise on the Statue of Liberty unless they needed cheap labor for their farms and factories.
Shame on Trump. Shame on the cowardly and duplicitous Republican Party. And shame on America if our citizens give license to this evil.
I also grew up in a “financially” very poor family. Thank goodness we (white citizens) had truly excellent “public” education in the 50’s. Elementary school. . . that’s where the paths separated along racial lines. You see, although I was poor, I did not suffer the very common discrimination endured by people of color. at every turn. I didn’t realize it then. . . but, doors of opportunity were open to me that still remain closed to millions of other “LEGAL” US citizens merely because of skin color.
Yes. . . I grew up “poor’. Yes, I had to work hard to educate myself and to create a career path as a woman in a man’s world. Yes, I did almost 40 years of 50 hour weeks to create my career and my financial well being. BUT, I absolutely had a much, much easier time of it because I was born with “white” skin!
Those who spout off about all people with brown and black skin being lazy or just wanting to live off the government are just plain “bigoted” in their beliefs, and have “NO CLUE” what it is like to live “OPPRESSED” from the moment of birth
I also have not lived in the skin of those who live their lives suffering such discrimination. . . but, at least I have a mind that is “open” enough to try and imagine such a nightmare. And, compassion enough to speak out against the racism that has been reborn in the horrific trump era.
Right On TPG!
I believe white privilege, racial inequities, racial divides, etc. are excuses/rationalizations for personal or cultural failure.
Another Bill says
Just asking how much of this economic/wealth down fall to the black population follows the increase in single motherhood homes??? A fact of life to avoiding being poor 1st stay in school (primary) pay attention learn there and graduate. Next get a JOB work hard move into better jobs (or get a useful degree). Dont have kids out of wedlock. Get married then have kids work hard at keeping the family unit together.