This Juneteenth, Let’s Start Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

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Today, the US House of Representatives subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.   

In that hearing, Congressman Mike Johnson said, “Would [reparations] propagate a world view that says external forces from a century and a half ago are directing the fate of black Americans today?”

He may not have meant it, but Rep. Johnson was more right than he knew. Those external forces from a century and a half ago are clearly impacting the fate of black Americans today. The immense racial wealth gap and a still-extant system of economic racism have left Black Americans with a greatly-diminished set of economic opportunities when compared to White Americans.

In my personal case, I am one of the luckiest guys in the world, but part of my luck is that I had a father who went to college at the University of Vermont as part of the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC). He graduated in 1953, served as an airforce officer, and married my mother in 1957. They got a federally subsidized home mortgage loan and entered a family business. Back then, an explicit criteria for a mortgage loan was being in a “racially stable” neighborhood, specifically excluding black Americans, who were no longer “slaves” but were still legally excluded from many parts of our society.

In 1977 when I was applying to colleges, my father simply told me not to ask for any financial aid. I graduated with no meaningful debt, and no need to immediately get a job to pay expenses. I was able, every step of the way, to make the decisions that I thought were in my long term best interests, not having short term financial issues. My wife and I were able to save a large portion of our income and our children were able to go to college without any need for loans or grants, and in fact their savings are going up, not down as they begin their respective careers.

My story may be a story of luck, but it is also indicative of how the racial wealth gap continues to persist. There is virtually no part of my personal success story that would have been possible if I had been born to African-American parents rather than white ones. Centuries of economic oppression have left millions of Black Americans disadvantaged in ways that may not be as in-your-face obvious as slavery, but that are still incredibly damaging.

The legacy of slavery and years of segregation have left a colossal wealth gap between white and black families that disadvantages Black Americans to this day. Slavery might be over, but millions of Black Americans are still feeling its effects.

In 1863, Black Americans owned just 0.5% of the nations wealth. Today, they own only 1.5%. A typical black family owns just 1/10th of the wealth of the average white family. This isn’t an accident – even after emancipation and the Civil Rights Act, countless barriers have been put in the path of Black families trying to climb the ladder of social mobility. From redlining to mass incarceration to more subtle inequities like our tax code’s preferential treatment of pre-existing wealth over income earned from work, the American economic system has stood in the way of racial wealth equality at every turn. Unless we seek to deliberately and systematically break down these barriers, things can never improve.

60 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, it’s not enough for us to fight for black children to not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We must also strive to ensure that their bank balances aren’t influenced by the color of their grandparent’s skin as well.

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