WEALTH OF A WHITE NATION BLACKS SINK DEEPER IN HOLE
Forget the hoopla and ballyhoo celebrating Black faces in high places. The median net worth of an African American household is about $6,000, while white households wield 14 times as much wealth: more than $88,000. The disastrous details are contained in a report on wealth disparities by the Pew Hispanic Center, “The Wealth of Hispanic Households: 1996 to 2002,” but the worst news is for Blacks, one-third of whom have no assets or a negative net worth.
The bottom fell out of Black wealth accumulation in the deep recession of 2000 – 2001, a downturn that hurt all ethnic groups, but from which whites and Hispanics rapidly rebounded. Whites recouped their losses from the recession and fattened their holdings by 17 percent between 1996 and 2002. Hispanics boosted their meager household wealth to about $7,900 during that period – still only one eleventh of white households, but almost fully recovering the 27 percent loss they suffered at the turn of the 21st century. Blacks also lost 27 percent of their net worth in 2000 – 2001, but got back only 5 percent in 2002. These African American losses appear near-permanent, the result of the deindustrialization of the United States – the destruction of the Black blue-collar workforce.
Hispanics, clustered in the low wage service sector, suffered less lasting effects. However, for African Americans, the worst news just keeps on coming, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. As Roderick Harrison, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the Associated Press: "Wealth is a measure of cumulative advantage or disadvantage. The fact that black and Hispanic wealth is a fraction of white wealth also reflects a history of discrimination."
It is a “reflection” in the American mirror that whites don’t want to see, believing in the vast majority that their privilege and wealth has been earned – and at no one else’s expense. In truth, as Harvard social demographer Dr. Michael A. Dawson puts it, “The racial structures in the United States continue to this day to produce wealth disparities.” Today, these structures are working feverishly to dislodge Blacks from their precarious perches in the middle class. Yet whites remain implacably opposed to engaging in even a discussion of reparations, while continuing to profit from “the inherited gift that keeps on giving” (see , May 8, 2002). Surfing through the recession with their assets largely intact, white America pretends that some malady of “culture” – rather than the crimes of a nation – is what holds African Americans back. And some Black fools believe them.
Tomfoolery in high places
“There were several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who took the position that the racial wealth disparity was due to the misbehavior of Black folks,” says Dr. William “Sandy” Darity, recalling events at the 2003 Black Caucus Week, in Washington. Several silly Black lawmakers theorized that wealth disparities could be eliminated if only African Americans would engage in less impulse buying and save more money, said Darity, a Professor of Public Policy Studies, African and African American Studies and Economics at Duke University. He continued: “In fact, if you control for income, the Black savings rate is at least as high as the white savings rate. There is some evidence to suggest that it might be higher.”
By Darity’s calculations, African Americans would have to go without food, shelter, clothing and all other expenses en masse “for well over a decade” to save enough to achieve wealth parity with whites. “So I would say, there is no way that you can catch up by systemic and careful savings. If African Americans saved all of their income – that is, if we didn’t eat, pay any bills, but saved every cent of income – we could not close the wealth gap,” said the professor, who also teaches economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
In economics, the past is present; it is the cushion on which some folks arrive in this world. In the United States, those white cushions were likely embroidered by no- and low-wage Black folks whose descendants are today being slammed to the pavement with no buffer of any kind.
African American households earn less than 60 percent of median white income. At the pace of catch-up since 1968, according to a report issued earlier this year by United for a Fair Economy (UFE), “it would take 581 years” to achieve income parity with whites. But wages are not wealth. For most Americans, home ownership is the major asset. Seventy-five percent of whites own their homes, while more than half of Blacks rent. At the rate of “progress” recorded since 1970, UFE estimates “it would take 1,664 years to close the ownership gap – 55 generations.”
The roots of this unbridgeable gap – unbridgeable, that is, by the conventional mechanisms of capitalism – are much nearer. Duke University’s Dr. Darity follows the path the mule never took to examine the value of the 40 acres most ex-slaves never got. “We were supposed to get 40 million acres, we managed to accumulate 15 million by dint of our own efforts, and now we’re down to about one million acres,” said the professor. “I think people tend to deemphasize the importance of land as wealth. The areas designated by Union General William Sherman’s  field order are now some of the most valuable land in American.” He is referring to the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, now home and playground of the rich.
Of the 15 million acres of land accumulated by Blacks throughout the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, most “was fairly systematically taken away through terror, taxes and fraud. There were instances of the wholesale destruction of Black deeds by arson,” said Darity. The African American real estate patrimony was all but wiped out through white private and public lawlessness – crimes that led directly to today’s racial wealth disparities.
Had the post-Civil War federal government honored and expanded upon Gen. Sherman’s 1865 promise, or passed Congressman Thaddeus Stevens’ 1867 Reparations Bill for the African Slaves in the United States, which would have allotted 40 acres “to each [formerly enslaved] male person who is the head of a family,” African Americans might actually have gotten an economic leg up on the waves of European immigrants that poured into the country during the latter decades of the 1800s.
What would an 1865 plot of 40 acres be worth to Black America today? According to economist Darity’s numbers, about $1.6 million dollars to every African American – not counting the mule. “That should be the anchor for reparations,” he said.
And what of free and devalued Black labor? In a 2000 paper, Professor Joe R. Feagin, of the University of Florida, at Gainesville, reviewed a number of labor reparations calculations. He concluded:
”Clearly, the sum total of the worth of all the black labor stolen by whites through the means of slavery, segregation, and contemporary discrimination is staggering – many trillions of dollars. The worth of all that labor, taking into account lost interest over time and putting it in today's dollars, is perhaps in the range of $5 to $24 trillion.”
Feagin also tackled the land issue, to demonstrate that historical federal largess to whites dwarfs current Black reparations claims:
”Passed under the Abraham Lincoln administration, the Homestead Act provided access to productive land and wealth, mostly for white families, from the 1860s to the 1930s. Some 246 million acres were provided by the federal government, at minimal cost, for some 1.5 homesteads. Research by Trina Williams…estimates that – depending on calculations of multiple ownership, mortality, marriage, and childbearing patterns – somewhere between 20 and 93 million Americans are now the beneficiaries of this large wealth-generating program over several generations. Williams (2000) suggests that the most likely figure is in the middle range, perhaps 46 million, a figure equal to about one quarter of the current population. Almost all of these beneficiaries have been white, as only 4,000 African Americans made entries under the Homestead Act.”
Thus, white folks, many of them immigrants, received multiples of the acreage promised to Blacks – 246 million vs. 40 million – yet their descendants laugh out loud when African Americans bring up “40 acres and a mule.”
Not one cash dollar
Reparations supporters may tally the bill by any number of formulas, but white America isn’t hearing any of it. Data from a study of racial divisions under the George W. Bush administration, conducted over the past four years by Harvard University Professors Michael C. Dawson and Lawrence Bobo, reveal no support among whites for cash payments to compensate Blacks for slavery and Jim Crow. “None, no support, not any,” Dawson emphasized. “It’s a different world, in terms of how different groups see reality. There’s also a different moral universe.”
Within that morally challenged universe, only 4 percent of whites favored reparations for Black slavery in surveys conducted in 2000 and 2003. Two-thirds of Black respondents favored reparations for slavery.
This year, Dawson and Bobo, both professors of African and African American Studies, sought to clarify Black and white attitudes toward three reparations proposals: cash payments to African Americans as individuals; scholarship funds for disadvantaged African American youth; or the establishment of a Community Trust, to be used to rebuild Black schools and community infrastructure and foster small business.
Whites unanimously rejected the idea of cash payments to Blacks. When asked to assume that reparations were necessary, and to choose some form of compensation, whites favored a Community Trust over scholarships. African Americans favor both cash payments and the Community Trust idea, but are more likely to support the Community Trust framework. All three proposals enjoy some degree of support among African Americans.
A question from the Dawson-Bobo 2003 survey may provide the best measure of general white moral obtuseness on issues of race. When asked if reparations should be paid to the survivors of the white destruction of the Black communities of Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921) and Rosewood, Florida (1923), 84 percent of Blacks said “yes.” Only 11 percent of whites agreed, an indication that widespread white feelings of guilt over racial oppression is a myth.
Professor Dawson noted that “even when presented with a demonstrable survivor of a contemporary event, whites oppose any reparations to the Black victims.”
That’s because most whites consider themselves to be, somehow, victims of African Americans, just as they feel set upon and victimized for no good reason by dark Islamic forces in the world, and for the same reasons that they constructed a national mythology of victimization at the hands of “savage” Indians. The Dawson-Bobo statistics tell a tale of racism in the raw.
So deep is the collective psychosis, that the current and historical reality of enforced Black economic instability, as detailed in the Pew wealth disparity study, seems to affirm many whites in their delusions of superiority. Against all facts and reason, white America rejects redress of Black grievances, because it refuses to recognize its own bloody legacy, as described by University of Florida Professor Joe Feagin:
”White privilege is ubiquitous and imbedded even where most whites cannot see it; it is the foundation of this society. It began in early white gains from slavery and has persisted under legal segregation and contemporary racism. Acceptance of this system of white privileges and black disadvantages as ‘normal’ has conferred advantages for whites now across some fifteen generations.”
There will be a reckoning.