Why the racial wealth gap persists, more than 150 years after emancipationBreaking News
tags: slavery, African American history, income inequality, reparations, wealth gap
Calvin Schermerhorn is professor of history in Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and author of "The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860."
Juneteenth — Emancipation Day 1865 — was supposed to start a new era of black wealth creation. After 12 generations of being subject to slavery’s institutionalized theft, 4 million African Americans were now free to earn incomes and degrees, hold property, weather hard times and pass down wealth to the next generation. They would surely scramble up the economic ladder, if not in one generation then in a few.
Eight generations later, the racial wealth gap is both yawning and growing. The typical black family has just 1/10th the wealth of the typical white one. In 1863, black Americans owned one-half of 1 percent of the national wealth. Today it’s just over 1.5 percent for roughly the same percentage of the overall population. The cause of that stagnation has largely been invisible, hidden by the assumption of progress after the end of slavery and the achievements of civil rights. But for every gain black Americans made, people in power created new bundles of discrimination, largely hidden from sight, that thwarted, again and again, the economic promise of emancipation.
It’s a common misperception that the racial wealth gap is an unfortunate legacy of a bygone era. The myth goes like this: Slavery and Jim Crow bred black poverty. In the 20th century, millions of black families moved out of the South chasing high wages in urban industry. But after a few decades the factories closed, inner cities decayed and a “complex tangle of pathology” emerged in single-parent households and soaring incarceration rates.
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