Political arguments over the impact of racism in America can often devolve into a stalemate of feelings. Here is one very concrete way to measure what racism has done—and is doing—to our country.
No honest person (not even a Republican) can doubt that the legacy of slavery and the subsequent awful periods of racial atrocity contribute to the racial inequality that exists today. But witness the way that conversations on this issue play out in the political arena: attempting to trace current inequality back through history leads to defensiveness among whites, insistence that they are not racist, and denial of the past affecting the present. The entire conversation tends to get bogged down before much progress can be made. If only there was a way to put this stuff into a neat little chart with numbers on it....
Here, from the Economic Policy Institute, is something very easy to understand. Black Americans suffer from significantly higher levels of unemployment even when they have the same level of education as white people. It takes some impressive acrobatics of rhetoric to exclude past and present racism from the reasons behind a situation like this, when black people suffer nearly double (or more than double) the unemployment as white people do at all educational levels.
This is but one aspect of the racial wealth gap in America. The benefit of talking about the racial wealth gap is that you can put numbers on it, which allows for far less rhetorical squirming. Anyone, whether ignorant or just dishonest, can baldly deny racism’s affect on the level of personal experience, but that becomes much harder when the numbers are placed on the table. Whites may comfortably absolve themselves of responsibility for social ills by telling themselves that they, personally, are not racist. But none of us can absolve ourselves from this fact: one hundred and fifty years after the end of slavery, white households in America have a median wealth 13 times higher than black households.
Thirteen times higher. Is there a reasonable moral explanation for that? No, there is not. If you kidnap one group of people and systematically extort free labor from them for hundreds of years and then systematically disenfranchise and oppress them after that without any real attempt to pay them back for all that stolen labor, this is what you get. The racial wealth gap is a disgrace. Further, the racial wealth gap is the single most quantifiable facet of racial inequality in America. And for that reason, closing the racial wealth gap is also the easiest and most direct way for the government to attack the effects of racism in this country.
We have spent our entire history as a racist nation. Generations of leaders and activists have worked to change this, and generations after ours will continue to do that work, because racism is a problem that will take a very long time to be fixed, even with our best efforts. But we do not have to wait a very long time to address the racial wealth gap—the actual thing that drives a great deal of the inequality that results from racism. We can attack the racial wealth gap right now. Black people are the poorest group in America. Everything that we do to push wealth down the economic chain, to put more wealth in the hands of the poor and the working class, will help to close the racial wealth gap. That is something that can be accomplished through standard levers of government, like tax policy. It does not require another fifty years of arguing about who should be guilty. It is a number on a page, and it can be corrected in a meaningful way, beginning now. The more we close the racial wealth gap, the more every other social problem that flows from poverty will be mitigated.
Ending the racial wealth gap is not the same thing as ending racism. It does, however, have the advantage of being much more imminently achievable. Politicians have been giving sanctimonious speeches about equality forever. Fuck that. Make them put a dollar in your pocket. Let’s discuss the love in our hearts after we have more equality our bank accounts.