Wednesday Reading List: Wealth Inequality ... Just Wow

A new study from the Corporation for Economic Development has a shocking lede: under current economic conditions, it would take Black households 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their White peers have today. The study focuses on wealth inequality, rather than income:

Recent years have brought a heightened focus on income inequality, but while they’re related, wealth inequality is far more pronounced. According to a study published by Demos last year, the median income for whites in 2011 was around 50 percent higher than it was for blacks and Latinos, but whites’ median household wealth was around 16 times greater. It took 400 years of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination in the labor and housing markets to build the wealth gap that we see today. For example, by the time the Fair Housing Act made discrimination in housing illegal in 1968, people of color had missed out on decades of robust growth in the housing markets (and much of the next generation missed out on that wealth building in the 20 years it took to fully implement the law).

A few things here. First, wealth is a much more useful measure for examining financial disparities across families, because income is such an unreliable statistic. Income changes frequently because of both individual choice and a host of exogenous variable. Wealth is more linear and accounts for unearned inherited resources, one of the primary drivers of inter-generational inequality. Second, as one of the study's authors says, "The racial wealth divide is how the past shows up in the present." The past was EVEN MORE unjust than the present, which is how we get to the kind of statistics we see in this study. If you are White, and your grandparents lived in this country, they were accumulating wealth while Black families were statutorily excluded from every facet of the economy. Finally, it's worth reminding folks that, when we talk about repairing these historical wealth injustices, it's not entirely about slavery. The legal exclusion of Black families from the housing market through the 1960s is just as powerful in driving these wealth gaps, as individuals smarter than I have chronicled. 

Brando Simeo Starkey, writing at The Undefeated, wonders whether our country can ever deal with these issues without simultaneously pandering to White people, through what political scientists call "interest convergence":

Martin Luther King Jr. masterminded a strategy that employed the interest convergence theory to win racial progress. Historians August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, in From Plantation to Ghetto, observed that King “believed that it was for the good of the white man as well as the Negro that justice be done to the black man.” King shoved a mirror into the face of whiteness and exposed unsightly racist blemishes and provided them redemption to clear their complexion: supporting civil rights legislation. The legal rights denied to the freedmen for a century suddenly fell before the feet of their progeny. This would not have happened but for white folk feeling they were securing something, too: their humanity ... We witness perhaps the starkest modern instance of interest convergence theory in the 2003 affirmative action Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger. The Supreme Court held that a university must have a compelling governmental interest in order to administer an affirmative-action admissions program. Remedying past racism, the Supreme Court found, wasn’t a compelling governmental interest. Diversity, however, was largely because black and brown students in the classroom enrich the educational experience.

It's illustrative to apply Starkey's thesis to the problem of the wealth gap described above, because closing that gap would mean both rapidly increasing the growth of Black wealth while either A) dramatically slowing the growth of White wealth, or B) enacting significant progressive redistribution. The political problems with either approach are self-evident, which is why starting a conversation about reparations is so challenging. We have to start, though, with an honest reckoning of how we've been unjust in the past. The New York Daily News published an interesting entry in the "mea culpa" genre yesterday when they admitted they were wrong about the dangers of ending "stop and frisk" policing strategies:

The NYPD under Commissioner Ray Kelly used the lawful tactic of questioning suspicious individuals to deter crime before it happened. Many cops believed, for example, that the fear of getting stopped for questioning prompted would-be gun-toters to stop carrying their weapons. As many readers will know, the Daily News Editorial Board supported the NYPD’s strategy as essential to public safety. We also expressed fear that forcing the department to pull back could seriously harm public safety ... we predicted a rising body count from an increase in murders. We are delighted to say that we were wrong ... there can be little doubt that the NYPD’s increasing reliance on so-called precision policing — knowing whom to target, when and where — has played a key role. And there is no doubt that, heavily grounded in memories of past horrors and too little informed about the potential of smart new strategies, our fears were baseless.

There's not much to quibble with here; it's a concise, clear admission of being wrong on the merits, which is a scarcity in the world of opinion journalism and punditry.

It's also worth noting that, in dispensing with the myth that "stop and frisk" makes us safer, we should also interrogate the other punitive features of both our criminal justice system and schools. Karega Rausch wants us to look at how teachers deal with discipline issues:

Too often, high rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions at some charter and other public schools are justified to create orderly classrooms. But discipline has never been just an issue of disruptive students. Many studies have consistently found that a host of external factors—from school culture to the individual relationship between student and teacher—are a major determinant in how exclusionary discipline is meted out ... a study of African-American high school students found that the likelihood of students receiving an Office Discipline Referral (ODR) was classroom specific: particular student-teacher relationships produced the vast majority of discipline referrals among these students. The decision to use discipline isn’t consistent across schools—it’s not even consistent from classroom to classroom within a school. Blaming disruptive students doesn’t hold up.

There is a lot of symmetry between the problems with no-tolerance discipline policies in schools and "broken windows" policing strategies on the streets. Both theories are based on the premise that minimizing small disruptions can prevent larger problems. While that might sound smart in theory, in practice what happens is that teachers disproportionately punish children of color, particularly Black boys, for small, subjective reasons, justified on the basis of their behaviors distracting other children. Also, those reasons often are connected to race and class, which is  especially complicated given how many White teachers we have in schools that serve large numbers of Black children. Don't sleep on the complexity!