The Racial Wealth Gap Makes Everything Worse, Even our Democracy

Throughout the history of the United States, people of color have had a diminished voice in politics when compared to their white counterparts, largely due to discriminatory policies like poll taxes, gerrymandering, and even outright bans on their right to vote. Although access to the voting box has drastically improved over the past decade, there’s still a long way to go. We cannot claim to be a country of equal representation until big-money spending no longer restrains the political power of people of color.  

With lax campaign spending laws, money increasingly buys political influence in this country. Money buys power. And so as long as the inherent racial biases in our economic system favor small groups of wealthy, white men, carried over as a legacy of slavery, the people with a disproportionate amount of money, and therefore power, will continue to be white men. This leaves us with a political system that favors the needs of the donor class over that of people of color. 

Even though Black Americans made great strides in the mid-twentieth century in the political arena, there was still very little real progress in closing the racial wealth gap. The economic legacy of slavery and the lack of any substantial reconstruction for freed slaves lives on today. This gap was increased, not diminished, by federal policies like the GI bill, which allowed American families to begin building the kind of equity that builds generational wealth. Most of the benefits of these programs went to white families and helped catapult them further ahead of their Black counterparts. Beyond that, Black Americans are more likely to have lower incomes and not invest in the stock market, leaving them few options to accumulate wealth. 

All of these factors combined have created a country where the median wealth of the average black household was $24,100, compared to $189,100 for white households in 2019. Since the pandemic has taken a toll on the most vulnerable Americans, this disparity is likely more extreme today. The racial wealth gap in the United States has existed for so long and has been so fundamental to our nation’s development that it is now seemingly baked into our modern economy. 

The wealth gap is concerning enough as it is, but as the right-wing continues their multi-decade mission to weaken our campaign finance laws, this economic racial disparity directly translates to a racial disparity of political power for nonwhite Americans – a grossly unjust bastardization of American democracy. 

One of the largest lurches forward in the destruction of our campaign finance laws came with the Citizens United ruling in 2010. That Supreme Court decision ruled that spending money is equivalent to free speech and it’s unconstitutional to limit a corporation’s ability to spend on political issues. Since then, outside groups have more than tripled their spending in elections and with each subsequent cycle we break our all-time records for campaign spending in election years.  

By asserting that money is equivalent to speech, the Citizens United ruling falls in line with a large number of policies that discriminate against people of color. When the white, wealthy individuals who make up the majority of campaign donations have ‘more speech’ than poorer, non-white Americans, there’s clearly something wrong. This absurd reading of our finance laws is antithetical to the fundamental idea that all Americans have an equal right to free speech. When the voice of the wealthy, white donor class drowns out the mass of working people of color, our nation’s democracy is in a dire position. 

The consequences of these policies have already begun to take shape, as research has shown that our policymakers in Washington and statehouses around the country almost exclusively respond to the preferences and demands of affluent individuals over working and middle-class Americans. And when wealthy, white men have their hands on the levers of power, they ensure that their class receives favorable treatment. This was evident in 2008, when our nation bailed out massive corporations and banks during the financial crisis rather than helping the vast majority of Americans who were suffering, and in 2017 when the GOP passed a massive, billion dollar tax cut for country-club Americans and massive corporations, while the burden of paying our nation’s bills fell increasingly on working Americans. 

A higher minimum wage, criminal justice reform, national paid sick leave, and higher taxes on our nation’s wealthiest earners are just some of the people-first policies that are supported by a vast majority of people of color, but outside of lip service we see no urgency for these ideas in Washington because our legislators are in the pockets of the white, wealthy minority. 

After all, it’s the winners that write the rules, and the donor class has ensured that our economic and political system will remain rigged in their favor so long as they can maintain their influence. However, all is not hopeless. The pool of individuals who give small dollar donations is far more diverse than big dollar donations. If we were to enact public-financing systems that match small dollar donations, it could help amplify the voice of people of color and give them the influence they deserve in our political system. We can also vote for candidates who are dedicated to strengthening our campaign finance laws and refuse to take corporate PAC money.  

This Juneteenth, we are taking a moment to reflect on the many ways that systemic racism impacts the lives of people of color and continues to disenfranchise them. Solving these issues starts with understanding how we got here. 

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