By Ron Daniels
Not long ago, I attended the release of the National Urban League’s Annual State of Black America Report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The report is an extremely important document because it provides key indicators of Black progress in a number of social and economic areas in relationship to White Americans. This year’s report, One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America, focuses on the critical issues of joblessness, the wealth gap and economic inequality in Black America.
The data explodes the myth that, because the United States has a Black president, we now live in a “post-racial” society. No, race still matters in America. According to the report, the Median Household Income for Whites is $56,565 compared to $33,764 for Blacks; 11 percent of Whites live below the poverty line, 28.1 percent for Blacks; unemployment among Whites is 6.5 percent, 13.1 percent for Blacks; and, the critical “wealth-building” indicator of home ownership, Whites own their homes at a rate of 73.5 percent compared to 43 percent for Blacks – stunning disparities for a “post racial”society.
Even more alarming is the persistence of an enormous wealth gap between Blacks and Whites. According to a study co-authored by Thomas Shapiro, who spoke at the release of the State of Black America, the median wealth for White families in 2009 was $113,149 but only $5,677 for Blacks. The study defines wealth as “what we own minus what we owe.” Not surprisingly, Shapiro and his associates draw a direct correlation between homeownership and wealth accumulation.
Obviously the gap between Black and White home ownership is a major contributing factor to the abysmally low wealth accumulation in Black America. And, for those who think race is inconsequential, as George Fraser and many Black analysts have pointed out, huge amounts of wealth was loss during the “Great Recession,” a period when African Americans were deliberately targeted for toxic sub-prime mortgage loans. Racism in the mortgage industry led to the loss of Black wealth.
What is sobering and alarming about this data is that it hasn’t changed very much in the past decades, if not generations. Though I have not taken time to do the research, I am confident that a survey of past State of Black America Reports would show that the status of Blacks in comparison to Whites has remained relatively the same. For example, though income has increased for both groups, it is highly likely that the gap in the median income has remained about the same.
Though the State of Black America Reports are important, given the unchanging status of Blacks relative to Whites, it’s almost as if you could just say ditto on the data year after year. What accounts for the stagnant state of Black America? I believe it is the legacy of the intergenerational deficits of enslavement and the persistence of structural/institutional racism.
The cold fact is that Africans in America never received a substantial stake in terms of land or capital for the generations of free labor that produced incredible wealth for plantation owners, the shipbuilding, textile manufacturing,whiskey distilleries and a range of related industries and occupations – industries and occupations that thrived off the European slave trade and cash crop production, e.g. cotton, rice, sugar, indigo.
In addition, there was the “Jim Crow” system in the South that “set-aside” certain jobs for Whites and paid higher wages to Whites in jobs where Blacks and Whites did the same work. These material incentives were designed to ensure that White poor and working people would always fare better than their Black counter-parts. In modified form, this system of “affirmative action” for Whites existed all across the nation well into the 20th century. The benefits of “White privilege” were intended to drive a permanent wedge between Black and White poor and working people to prevent unified opposition to the manipulative, self-serving White ruling elites. By and large the system has worked well. In no small measure the relative gap between Blacks and Whites in terms of income and wealth is a legacy of enslavement and structural/institutional racism.
The question is: How is it possible to ever erase the income and wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, created by the failure to provide compensation to the formerly enslaved Africans for the centuries of free labor? The answer is through reparations for the damages done to the sons and daughters of Africans in America.
Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.