In the United States, the median household income is just over $59,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, that number changes across racial lines, and when statisticians break out black households, an entirely new number is found: less than $39,500. Black Americans are making a fraction of what white Americans make.
On top of that, black Americans inherit less savings, own less property and have fewer safety nets in place to protect them from poverty. In the United States, the racial wealth gap has existed since the beginning of American history, when the first white farmers began purchasing the first black slaves. Since the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans have had the right to earn money, but not necessarily the means.
There has never been any form of reparations paid to black Americans, and partially as a result, black Americans have never had an opportunity to rise out of widespread racialized poverty. There are a number of factors in play to explain the persistence of the racial wealth gap in the United States, but in short, the answer boils down to racism.
Inherited cycle of poverty
In the United States, black families have a median net worth of $17,600. White families, by comparison, have a median net worth of $171,000. The disparity is astounding. Black Americans struggle to get ahead because while white Americans often get to inherit the wealth of their parents, black Americans, instead, get saddled with the poverty and debt of their parents. Black Americans can often trace their family poverty back across generations to the end of slavery — a line that demonstrates how few opportunities the black population of America has had to claim new wealth and financial opportunity.
And inheriting poverty is more than just not inheriting money — it also means inheriting the habits and education, or lack thereof, that can come with and aggravate poverty. It means not understanding how to navigate financial institutions that have historically been unwelcome to black Americans. It means being the first person in one’s family to go to college and therefore deal with student loans, only to discover afterwards that student loans are far more predatory than institutions have signers believe.
It means returning to predatory institutions that prey on ignorance and poverty because that’s what other people in the community do, and turning to the options presented instead of seeking new ones that may be able to break the cycle.
Concentrated wealth disparity
The racial wealth gap is in part aggravated by the fact that the wealth gap in the United States — across races — is widening significantly. As wealth increasingly concentrates at the top, fewer and fewer Americans have opportunities to inherit wealth or generate new wealth. Black Americans, faced with a double whammy of institutional racism and inherited poverty are most likely to see their family wealth shrink over time in such brutal conditions.
The 2008 financial recession, for example, served as an economic boon for businessmen who came in and snatched up thousands of foreclosed properties, turning them into lucrative renting businesses that now dominate the market. And whose homes did they snatch up? Those of former black homeowners, who were some of the hardest hit by the economic recession. The recession itself was created out of predatory lending practices and promises of economic opportunity made to desperate communities, negatively affecting black communities all the more.
Lack of black-owned businesses
Ultimately, the reason black Americans struggle to retain wealth is because the wealth is controlled almost entirely by white Americans. A lack of funds in black communities, a lack of wealth to start businesses due to background checksand a lack of black-owned businesses, that provide economic opportunity and community support, help reinforce decades and decades of racialized discrimination and economic disadvantage.
More black-owned businesses would provide a more welcoming and positive environment to black Americans, rather than a predatory environment tinged with racism. However, black businesses often struggle with obtaining and retaining the capital necessary to thrive without access to financial backing from powerful institutions. As a result, the gap persists and the cycle continues.