The term systemic racism is redundant. Racism is systemic. It is a multi-level, multi-dimensional system of oppression.
On average, White families have a net worth of $171,000. The average Black family’s net worth is about one tenth of that, or $17,150. White families tend to have more assets, which can unlock opportunities such as education. Generally speaking, White families have the ability to absorb a greater financial blow such as an unexpected repair bill, healthcare costs, or loss of income.
Why is that?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin takes us through the causes of the wealth gap and the consequences of racism. Dr. Martin is professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Louisiana State University.
Dr. Martin has published and edited more than 20 works on racial wealth inequality, Black asset poverty, and race and sports. Her latest book, America in Denial: How Race-Fair Public Policies Reinforce Inequality in America, is scheduled for publication in May 2021 with State University of New York (SUNY) Press.
In this conversation, Dr. Martin traces wealth inequality and Black asset poverty through racist policies from the exclusion of Black people from the GI Bill, to slavery. A complete transcript of the conversation can be found below.
Learn More about Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Complete Transcript of Lori Latrice Martin Discussing Racial Wealth Inequality and Black Asset Poverty:
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Hi, I’m Laurie Latrice Martin. I am a professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Louisiana State University.
Yes, and you are the author of 20 books or more.
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Yes, that’s correct.
As if you have nothing else to do, you have managed to write 20 books you.
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
To be fair, I’ve authored and or edited more than 20 books
Oh well, that’s fair enough.
You have a book coming out in 2021. It’s, American Denial: How Race-Fair Public Policies Reinforce Inequality in America. It’s coming out around May of 2021. So, what’s the book about?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Yeah, so the book is exactly as the title implies, it’s about the fact that many public policies that claim to address racial disparities on issues like wealth inequality, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, in education, an in the healthcare system, they will say they want to address these Black-White gaps in particular, but at the same time they don’t necessarily want to center on race. So, how do you really address racial ongoing racial differences on these various areas without really accounting for race? And so, I describe why I think that that is happening at this particular point, how it’s related to America’s history as it relates to race and then to think about what are some alternatives?
Can you give us an example of one of those race-fair public policies?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Yes, so the one to be honest that annoyed me the most that prompted me to write the book – that’s usually how I come up with the book idea. Something happens in society that annoys me, and I want to investigate it further. And before I know it, I’ve conceptualized a book project. So, that’s how this happened. The actual program or policy initiative has resurfaced, I think I saw this in New Jersey.
That’s a baby bonds initiative. When Senator Cory Booker was still running for president as a Democratic candidate, he was a strong supporter of this. And he had the support of some Black sociologists as well, and others. But essentially, this is would be a program where every baby born in the US, let’s say in 2021, would get, and I’m just making up these numbers $10,000 at birth. And then when they reached 18, then they could access that money and returns on investment. And they can use that money to pay for college or to buy a house or to start a business.
But again, this program, despite the wide racial gap in terms of wealth inequality in America, would go to all Americans regardless of their socioeconomic status. Or, regardless of their race or ethnicity. So, I was hard pressed to understand how this was going to even put a dent in racial wealth inequality. So, that’s one example.
And so it may not be popular with some people to say, hey, the gap between Black and White people in America is so great that a report in the magazine, The Nation said that it would take about 200 years for Black people to catch up to where White people are now.
So why not say, “Well, we’re going to give these bonds just to Black families who meet whatever guidelines”? But no, that’s not politically popular in some circles, and so that’s one example that I address in the book.
So, a single mom struggling, working two or three jobs because she doesn’t get a living wage from any of them. She gets the baby bond, but so does Jeff Bezos if he decides to sire another child and so his child would get a baby bond. And so, I could see how that would in no way close the wealth gap, right?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Right, but the messaging around it is that it would. You know it would give something to everyone and that all boats would rise and it’s just not accurate and it hasn’t been shown to be true in the past. I mean, even if we look at the stimulus checks that went out with the COVID pandemic. Whoever got, let’s say, the $1,200 that might have gone a very long way for some people, but didn’t even cover a part of a monthly expenses for another group. And so, there are so many different variations, and so sometimes it’s not the best thing to do is not to be equal, to treat people equally, but to focus on equity.
Racial wealth inequality, or Black asset poverty, what’s the state of the game? If we looked around and said, what are the numbers? What does that look like?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
I gave you a little window into that in terms of the recent article from The Nation, which argues that it would take 200 years for Black people to catch it to White people. That just gives you some sense of how great the distance is, but I would say that Brandeis University, in their Institute where they look at racial wealth inequality, provide some really great numbers as well as the Pew Research Center from time to time and what we might find is that Black households have, maybe ten or eleven cents for every dollar in overall net worth that White families have, if that. So Black families are actually more likely to have zero or negative net worth than positive.
And so those are some very telling numbers and what’s also important too. And I’ll tell you if anyone is really interested in this topic or what got me excited about studying racial wealth inequality and Black asset poverty was a book called Black Wealth, White Wealth by Oliver and Shapiro.
It was published in the mid 1990s, but what they were able to highlight is that while the racial gap on incomes or the money that we might be making working for someone else who may have improved over the last few decades, it’s still not to the point where Black people are making dollar for dollar what White people are making, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
But they pointed to the fact that if you look at wealth and you look at families with the same levels of income, that there’s just no comparison. That the gap is so wide that it should be considered a social issue that we really need to pay attention to, and that we really need to address.
One of the one of the ways that people build up wealth is by owning property, right? Help me understand, what’s the structural racism that led us to the point where two people are earning approximately the same amount of money? Not exactly the same, but the gap is closing a little here.
They’re earning the same amount of income, and yet they have less wealth.
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Yeah, so let me start by defining asset poverty, which I didn’t do previously. Many scholars would say that asset household is poor if they don’t have access to liquid assets that can sustain them for a period of about three months. If, in the case of some health care crisis, or in case of an economic disaster, loss of job and so forth. So that’s the definition. And so Black people are overrepresented among the asset poor.
And so, to your question, how did we get here? Some scholars and other people would say, “Well, Black people and other people color they don’t want to save, they just want to spend. They are into conspicuous consumption and they just want to be seen.” And, maybe there may be some of that. There may be some of that in every group, but when we look at the history of race in America, we can see the structures that have been placed, that have privileged some groups, mainly White people in America, and disadvantage Black people. The most obvious example is slavery. I mean, you literally have Black people as assets.
And what I think is the most miraculous story of American history, is the movement of Black people from assets to owners. I mean, that’s just the fact that that’s just amazing and we could talk more about that. But it’s really telling that when you want to look at the history of Black people during enslavement era, you don’t look in the family Bibles to see when people were born and when they married and so forth. You look in the business ledgers, you look in the deeds, you look in bills of sale. So Black people, were a really important financial instruments and not considered as human beings. You know, we talk about them as chattel but also his financial instrument. So how do you accumulate wealth when people are accumulating wealth because of your labor? And that’s exactly what was happening.
As you may know, I’ve also done research on race and sports. It’s also interesting to think about the fact that during the enslavement period, you had slave jockeys, right? And so, they were owned by wealthy White people who were able to enhance their wealth by making wagers on the labor of these slave jockeys. And if these slave jockeys were very successful, and they were never allowed to emancipate. It’s just a perpetual performance of the sport. And so yeah, this whole history, and even during the enslavement, you did have some free Black people that were able to on the businesses and so forth. And even some people who were enslaved that we’re able to make money and buy the freedom of others. But it just pales in comparison to the amount of wealth that was amassed by White people during the enslavement period. And that that was directly related to the unpaid labor of people brought here involuntarily from mostly central and western portions of Africa.
And then, if you continue that onto the reconstruction period which follows the civil war, there were some moments where people thought maybe, we might address some of these issues. So, you had the Freedmen’s Bureau hat was established that was supposed to provide some support to ex slaves, to help them to get land and to receive an education. Some people are familiar with Special Field Order 15, and this idea of 40 acres and a mule which was the general size of land that could sustain a household.
But these things didn’t really happen for Black people because you had a compromise in 1877 that basically turned back the clock and Black people did not get the compensation that they deserve following slavery.
And so, it just continues even into the 20th century. And while the whole country was suffering from the Great Depression and people were celebrating Roosevelt and his new deal, some people called a raw deal for Black people because it didn’t include domestic workers and agricultural workers where Black people were disproportionately found.
And then we had many Black people involved in the double campaign fighting abroad against various issues during the world wars as well as fighting for racial justice here. And then, many of those soldiers returning, while White soldiers were able to take advantage of the GI Bill and which allowed them to go to school and allow them to buy homes, that was not the case necessarily for Black veterans and for Black people more broadly.
So, what’s really a critical. Is that in the 1930s in the 1940s, for the first time in American history, the average American could purchase a home. Prior to this time, only really wealthy people could purchase a home because you had to put a large down payment, like 15% of the value of the house and you had a relatively short period of time to pay it off. So, most people couldn’t afford to do that. But with the Federal Housing Administration and the Homeowners Loan Corporation, it became easier because the federal government was underwriting many of these loans.
But what was also happening is that financial institutions were evaluating what areas they thought were risky or hazardous. For example, for investments they were literally considering color when they were doing this. And so, that’s where we get this idea of redlining from, where you can see that what that they had these maps, and if the neighborhoods were predominantly Black or were changing from White to Black, they were given the color red, and deemed as not a good place for investment.
And so, something like 80% of the money that went to funding the suburbs and this massive wealth accumulation through homeownership, went to White people. And Black people were left out of it, or subject to concentration in urban areas.
In addition to that you also had various neighborhood associations with Restrictive Covenants that people would have that where they would just vow that they wouldn’t sell to Black people, if they were going to move. So, just the mere presence of Black people, Black homeowners in a neighborhood was thought to decrease the value of the homes in that neighborhood. And so, while that wasn’t necessarily true, it ends up happening because then people are ready to take money and run if they think that they’re going to lose it.
So, that period, with this massive accumulation of wealth, think about it, allowed generations to help their offspring and to help others. It allowed them to help to their children to have debt-free college education in its own ways.
It helped them to buy homes provided them with the kinds of amenities that you just wouldn’t see in other areas. That helps to explain a lot of what’s going on now.
And, even now some studies that scholars do, they call audits where they match up people who have like the same credit scores, they have the same down payment. You know they look the same on paper. But the only difference is their race. And they see how they’re treated throughout the home buying process. And time and time again, the research shows that Black and Brown people are either denied more often than their White counterparts, or they’re steered to different types of markets where they the return on investment won’t be as great. Or that there are non-White areas.
And so, there are a lot of ongoing challenges as it relates to racial wealth inequality. It’s not simply that some people just don’t save an or that they don’t have the ability to save, which can be the case. But there are all these other structural issues.
And the last thing I’ll mention is something that is often cited, is the role of inheritances. So Black people are less likely to get inheritances than White people, and if they do get them there at lower levels. And so inheritances play an important role to and perpetuating racial wealth inequality in America.
So, the argument can be made that wealth is probably the best example of the legacy of racism in America than many other measurements.
And let me also say that when I say racism, I may not be using it in the same way that people are using it in their everyday conversation. I find that some people use racism and prejudice and discrimination interchangeably. And some people can be very offended when folks will say, “Well, Black people can’t be .” And they’ll say, “Of course they can,” and give you examples. But from a sociological perspective, when we talk about racism, we’re talking about a multi-level, multi-dimensional system of oppression. And it involves scapegoating, racial groups by the dominant group.
And so, when you think about it like that, racism is not just when someone in Wisconsin decides to shoot people who are protesting another use excessive force. That’s not just the only example of racism, but when we look at wealth inequality by race and we look at the over representation of Black people among the asset poor or we look at racial disparities in education or a disproportionate number of Black people have died of COVID-19 in some cities. I mean, it’s amazing, it’s 70 and 80% in some places where of all the people who have died of COVID-19 related deaths are Black.
So, first of all, wow, that’s a lot to take in. I think the place where you started is many people blame poverty on a character flaw, right? And I have in my life observed that and I probably have had some thoughts along those lines, right? I am not a perfect human being. I’m sure at some point I saw somebody who was poor but had some nice gadget and went aha. That’s why they’re poor, right?
And so, it is tempting for many people to blame poverty on a character flaw. And I do think that that is a common theme among many Americans, that they believe that people who are poor didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, right? And when one is swimming in the sea of privilege, it’s hard to see water, right? So, it’s hard to acknowledge the fact that we live in this sea of privilege.
I think a lot of people push back kind of hard about slavery and they’ll say, “Well, I didn’t own any slaves. It’s not my fault that slaves were owned.” And yet through inheriting land and the ability to get loans etc., all of that really has its roots there. And I love what you said from assets to owners and we could talk about that some more.
And none of us that I know of were alive during reconstruction, so it’s easy to sort of separate yourself from that right? To say, “I didn’t do that. How is that my fault?”
But, at the same time we benefit or are harmed by the results of those behaviors. But I think, in more recent history around housing after World War Two, I think that’s the thing that for me it just hits this big gong in the middle of me. It resonates with me so much, because I was not aware that the GI bill explicitly left out the ability for Black people to attend college. Therefore, attaining higher education, therefore allowing them to earn more money. And that it explicitly left Black people out of housing.
And then Racial Covenants came in and the FHA not loaning, and these homeowner associations, and all the things that you mentioned – because that to me is kind of where things started pulling apart. White people started making more progress over a longer period of time and Black people, people of color were left behind in those. And so we’re seeing the echoes of that even today.
So, I do want to give you just one second to talk about, from asset to owners. You mentioned that and I could tell you wanted to go down that rabbit rrail a little bit but give me give me just a couple of minutes on that.
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
Yeah, so a lot of times we focus, and rightly so, on all the challenges that Black people face that are connected to slavery, that are connected to contemporary examples of discrimination, and ongoing racism. But there are these stories within the Black history that sometimes don’t get enough attention. And so, there are these stories about Black people who, despite all of these restrictions, have been able to overcome and be successful in a number of ways.
For example, I did research in the past about Cynthia Hesdra. She went from being a slave to being one of the wealthiest women in all of New York by the time she died. And the only reason we know about her is because there was a battle over her fortune, and it was covered in the New York Times. Were there not a battle over her fortune, we may not have known that she was possibly involved in the Underground Railroad. Or, that she was this a wealthy, prominent person.
And so, we need to talk more about those kinds of stories. One scholar, Dr. John Sibley Butler writes about Black entrepreneurship. And he focuses on the self-help tradition. So, while other people might focus on and again rightly so, it’s justified in doing so, looking at all the structural barriers that Black people have to be successful in the world of business. He instead prefers to focus on this self-help tradition in how some Black people have continued to bring things to the market and been successful despite all the obstacles.
And so, Black people have a very complex history. Unfortunately, it’s been so tainted by their experience of racism, that these stories about Black people in general going from assets to owners, are sometimes not told.
There’s an election coming up and the whole theme of this podcast is being an Antiracist Voter. So, if we’re frustrated about the lack of attention to this issue of racial wealth inequality and Black asset poverty, as we talk to the candidates or listen to the candidates talking, or as we go into the voting booth, what’re the policies we should be focused on as we go into this election.
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
I think that voters should educate themselves about where elected officials or people who are running for office stand in terms of addressing racial wealth inequality. I mean, do they see that as being a critical issue of facing the nation going forward? If they don’t, then perhaps it’s not the candidate you know for you, but if they acknowledge that it is an issue and its something that needs to be addressed, and that’s a good starting point. Everyone may not agree on the details and what is the best thing going forward.
But at the very least, I would hope that a candidate that wants to narrow the wealth gap would talk about ways to promote homeownership among Black people. And I don’t mean promote it to say like “This is a good thing. You should do it.” I mean people know that it’s a good thing to own a home if you can. But, to what extent are you willing to develop race-specific policies aimed at helping Black people with closing costs or with a down payment?
Or are you willing to put more resource into enforcement so that if Black people are experiencing discrimination throughout their home buying process, as the research is showing, are willing to allocate the resources so that those can be properly adjudicated and Black people can be compensated accordingly?
Also, thinking about well, what is a candidate willing to do to promote Black businesses? One thing that I’ve been so pleased to see. I’ve been working with different organizations and departments within LSU, but also another group that’s launching so called ABIS. It’s the Advancement of Blacks in Sports.
And one of the things they’re focusing on, and other groups as well, is increasing the amount of money that people are spending with diverse suppliers. In this case Black businesses. So, we look at all the money that universities are spending, that companies are spending when they’re buying food for lunches, that they’re doing or janitorial services. All these services that people need. How many of them are being intentional about reaching out to Black business owners and saying we have this opportunity? We buy X number of PPE items each year. Why not buy from a Black business owner?
And so perhaps that’s something else that an elected official or candidate might support that would be attractive to someone who really wants to put a dent in this racial wealth gap.
I would stay away from candidates personally who talk about things like marriage and education and labor force participation as being ways to narrow the racial wealth gap. Because research, again, such as that conducted at Brandeis University, has shown that that does very little to narrow the wealth gap. The racial wealth gap, and so, for example, if you have a Black household with a batch with someone has a bachelor’s degree, they have less wealth than a White household where they do not have a bachelor’s degree.
So, if people are focusing on these labor force participation, these human capital examples of narrowing the gap, that wouldn’t really be attractive to me. But if some of the examples that I gave in supporting and promoting Black homeownership, Black entrepreneurship and any number of ways, including reaching out to Black businesses as their suppliers for a host of services, I think that that would be great.
Dr. Martin, your book America in Denial: How Race-Fair Public Policies Reinforce Inequality in America is coming out in May of 2021. If people were looking for you online or on social media, where would they look?
Dr. Lori Latrice Martin:
So, I’m on Facebook, you could search for me using my Gmail address, that’s firstname.lastname@example.org. And, I’m also on Twitter @dr_lori_latrice.