America's greatest economic divide remains the gulf between the wealth of black families and white families. Between 1983 and 2007, that racial wealth gap more than quadrupled, according to a recent study from Brandeis University. At the bottom of the economic pyramid, at least 25 percent of black families in 2007 possessed no financial assets whatsoever to see themselves through the economic storm. And that storm struck in 2008.
Today, the Great Recession is taking a toll on most American families, but the higher up the income scale you live, the less you are likely to feel it. The children of affluence receive the fruits of their ancestors' opportunities and good fortune. They use it to educate themselves, to start businesses, to invest. It is a simple and inarguable fact that wealth perpetuates wealth. It is also a fact that poverty begets poverty. Anyone who knows American history understands the wealth gap between black and white.
Slaves were brought here early in our country's history to build the wealth of white people. They were not allowed to own or accumulate wealth. After Emancipation, white legislatures passed laws to keep black people removed from the wealth, power, and opportunity that whites considered their birthright. During the Great Depression, government policies shut blacks out of home ownership, and state and local laws segregated blacks into neighborhoods where home values did not increase as rapidly as in white neighborhoods. Blacks lacked the wealth to assist their children in making the down payment on a new home. As blacks have inched into the middle class in recent years, most of their wealth — for those who have been able to accumulate any — has been tied up in their homes. With the collapse of the housing market since 2008, that wealth has been slashed, along with the chance for black parents to help their children or pass a legacy to them.
I was reminded of this sad history recently as I reread my colleague Jack Hunter's City Paper column from Sept. 28, 2011. There Jack describes working for his father's electrical contracting company for a number of years as a young man. "I did this off-and-on throughout high school and for a solid eight-year stretch later in life," he tells us.
Jack is a good writer with some interesting ideas. I have invited him to speak to my opinion writing class at the College of Charleston and always found his insights useful. But like most white people, Jack's worldview has a serious blind spot — himself.
Jack fails to see that he is not just part of a larger society, but part of the flow of history. He is not the self-made creature he would have you believe. He hates labor unions and social safety nets, but like most conservatives he doesn't need them. Jack worked for his father and his family was his safety net.
I do not fault him for this. I have turned to my family for help at critical times. That's what families are for. But some families are able to help more than others. Some are not able to help at all. Jack has the comfort and security of knowing that if things do not work out in his new career as a right wing spinmeister, he will never have to sleep on the street. He will never want for a meal.
Another point in Jack's column that needs to be debunked: Writing about his father, Jack says, "Nobody ever gave him anything. He earned every bit of it." Jack, maybe your father started out poor, but he also started out white. From the day he was born, Jack's father had an enormous advantage that many in this state never had. His white skin opened doors not available to many people.
White skin offers many advantages, but — sadly — it does not guarantee any degree of empathy or self-awareness. Most white people still believe that they are the authors of their own opportunities and good fortune, that they owe nothing to anyone else. They desperately, violently reject any suggestion that their wealth and privilege are — at least to some degree — the result of centuries of brutal laws and public policy.
Conservatives think that their worldview is some god-given truth. Indeed, many will thump the Bible and read chapter and verse to show why they enjoy some special status or privilege. Others cite Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley. I believe the primary determinant of a person's philosophy of life can usually be found in his bank statement. In the South, it can also be determined by his skin color.
Denial — whether of global climate change or history — may be good politics, but it does not make good policy. It's wisdom I hope my friend Jack will gain with age.