Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap | 2017

A publication by Demos.

By Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, & Tom Shapiro

Issues of racial inequity are increasingly at the forefront of America’s public debate. In addition to urgent concerns about racial bias in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, activists highlight deeply connected issues of economic exclusion and inequality. No metric more powerfully captures the persistence and growth of economic inequality along racial and ethnic lines than the racial wealth gap. According to data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, the median white household possessed $13 in net wealth for every dollar held by the median black household in 2013. That same year, median white households possessed $10 for each dollar held by the median Latino/a household.

This paper explores a number of these popular explanations for the racial wealth gap, looking at individual differences in education, family structure, full- or part-time employment, and consumption habits. In each case, we find that individual choices are not sufficient to erase a century of accumulated wealth: structural racism trumps personal responsibility. Drawing on data from the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, we find that white adults who don’t graduate high school, don’t get married before having children, and don’t work full time still have much greater wealth at the median than comparable black and Latino adults—and often have more wealth than black and Latino households that have married, completed more education, or work longer hours. Differences in consumption habits also cannot explain the wealth gap; we look at academic research finding that white households spend more than black households of comparable incomes, yet still have more wealth.