Study: Black/white wealth inequality has exploded since ’80s

Updated
File Photo: Tim Waiters holds his uncle Jimmy's original sign from the sanitation worker's strike of 1968,  at the Recommitment March in Memphis, Tenn.,...
File Photo: Tim Waiters holds his uncle Jimmy's original sign from the sanitation worker's strike of 1968, at the Recommitment March in Memphis, Tenn.,...
AP Photo/Greg Campbell, File

The racial wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased by $152,000 in the past 25 years, according to a new study [PDF] from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy. The median wealth of white families has shot up precipitously since 1984, while the median wealth of black families has barely moved.

“Tracing the same households during that period, the total wealth gap between white and African-American families nearly triples, increasing from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009,” write the authors of the report. The chief driver of the inequality increase, they write, was disparities in homeownership, with household income arriving in second and unemployment in third.

White households were found to benefit disproportionately from average income increases, and residential segregation was said to be a major reason for inequality in homeownership. Additionally, “whites received about ten times more wealth than African-Americans” among those earning an inheritance.

“Our analysis found little evidence to support common perceptions about what underlies the ability to build wealth, including the notion that personal attributes and behavioral choices are key pieces of the equation,” they write. “Instead, the evidence points to policy and the configuration of both opportunities and barriers in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforce deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated and that continue to permeate the most important spheres of everyday life.”

Atlantic Monthly blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that the report was evidence of how racial inequality “has, for most of American history, been our explicit public policy, and today, is our implicit public policy.”

The study was widely circulated on the same day that the Supreme Court heard a challenge against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. During questioning, Justice Antonin Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act as the “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” implying that act is either no longer a necessary response to political racial inequalities, or never was in the first. However, if the Brandeis report is accurate, then it suggests that American public policy continues to disproportionately benefit whites.

Study: Black/white wealth inequality has exploded since '80s

Updated