How that history impacts the world today: wealth, education, and neighborhoods
According to the Federal Reserve in 2017, the median white family in America today has 10 times as much wealth (net worth) as the median black family.
One reason (of many): Over the centuries, white families were able to develop rich lineages of wealth and land passed on from parent to child.
In contrast, non-white families were continually denied opportunities to both acquire and hold on to wealth.
People of color have been treated very differently from white people since the earliest days of America.
Not only were they severely mistreated, but time and time again whites were given land and privileges that were denied to non-whites.
Therefore, over the centuries, white families were able to develop rich lineages of wealth and land passed on from parent to child.
Conversely, families of color were not able to accumulate wealth or land, so each new generation was starting from scratch on their own.
That’s why white families today tend to be dramatically wealthier than non-white families.
- The median white family in America has 10 times as much wealth (net worth) as the median black family, and 8 times as much as the median Hispanic one
- Due to investments of that historical wealth as well as major differences in income today (among other reasons), the wealth gap between white and black families has only been getting worse. From 1983 to 2013, the median wealth of white families increased by 14%, but it decreased by 75% for black and latinx households
- Currently, 1 in 5 black families has a net worth of $0 or even less (i.e., more debts than assets)
- But, when random Americans are polled, they vastly overestimate how much progress has been made toward economic equality across racial lines. Many of us have convinced ourselves that racial discrimination is solved
- Researchers think a big reason for our confusion as white people is how little time we tend to spend with people different than us (which is not entirely our fault—part of the reason is that people of color have been systematically segregated into separate neighborhoods, which I'll go into later)
It's no coincidence that many cities have higher-end "white" neighborhoods and lower-end neighborhoods with a lot of people of color.
This is largely because people of color were systematically denied mortgages and access to desirable neighborhoods.
This affects not only where POC get to live but also where they can work, where they can go to school, and even how healthy their diet can be.
A person's zip code is one of the greatest indicators of their life expectancy (we're talking about a difference of 10+ years), and people of color have been systematically denied the ability to live in the better zip codes.
- It is true that a lot of people of color have ended up living in less affluent neighborhoods. There are many reasons for that, but here are a few:
- First is redlining, which happened from 1934 to 1977. During that period, money lenders would literally draw lines around neighborhoods they considered "risky." People in those neighborhoods would either be denied mortages outright or given much less favorable ones
- It might seem reasonable to deny good mortgages to people living in "risky" neighborhoods... except that it wasn't actually about risk—it was about race. Investigations revealed that these lenders were willing to give mortages to low-income white people but not to medium- or even high-income people of color
- And, even though that practice was officially banned in 1977, its effects are still very much felt today. In many neighborhoods that were formerly redlined, home values are half of those in neighborhoods that had not been redlined
- Another reason was the G.I. bill, written in 1944 to help veterans returning from World War II by giving them guaranteed low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans. However, for a variety of reasons, over a million black veterans were denied coverage. Even those who were able to qualify were brutally attacked when they tried to move into certain neighborhoods
- The effect of all this was that white people were able to buy into more expensive neighborhoods and have their homes go up in value over time while people of color had to remain in neighborhoods with less valuable homes
- In other words, it's no coincidence that many cities like Chicago and Detroit have very clear "black" and "white" neighborhoods and that the latter are considered "nicer." Lines were literally drawn on a map to make it this way
- Additionally, even more recently, people of color have been less likely to be promoted at work, and less likely to be hired for higher-paying jobs in the first place. So, it's been very difficult for many POC to move out of those lower-income neighborhoods
- For all those reasons, white families have had far greater access to more expensive houses in more affluent neighborhoods, access to better jobs, and more opportunities to both accumulate wealth and gain knowledge of how to build wealth
- It's also interesting to stop to notice what "nicer neighborhoods" means in this context. Certainly many of the "whiter" neighborhoods will have larger, more expensive houses. But not everyone would necessarily agree that they're nicer or that those neighborhoods feel better to live in
- As white people growing up in America, we've been conditioned by media to see suburban neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns and big single-family houses as representative of wealth and status. But that view is dependent on culture
- In fact, many young white people gravitate toward parts of the city they see as artsy, full of street life, or otherwise having personality. Those parts of town tend to be more oriented around local culture, community, and connection. They also tend to be more racially diverse
- This is a complex subject since more white people moving into those neighborhoods can create gentrification (which can push out the people of color who had been living there and created that culture), but the point is that just because a certain part of town has more crime or doesn't look like the idealized white neighborhood doesn't mean that it's not "nice" or "comfortable." To many people, white suburbia isn't comfortable either (not only for some POC, but even for some white people who might feel a sense of judgment in some of those neighborhoods if they don't conform to a conventional "all-American" ideal)
- Being restricted to less expensive neighborhoods has also greatly limited the educational opportunities available to people of color. White kids have tended to have access to better-funded schools with more competitive programs, and that's allowed them to improve their chances of attending college as well
- Students in some towns have access to guidance counselors, school psychologists, personal laptops, theater programs, and up-to-date textbooks, whereas nearby towns where students are in need of extra help have far less funding, leading to fewer resources, buildings that are falling apart, and out-of-date textbooks
- A key point here is that nearly half of revenue for public schools comes from property taxes. So when the median net worth of white households is ten times higher than that of black and Latinx households, it's clear why there's such a large gap between schools in wealthier neighborhoods and less-wealthy ones
- Here's an excellent 4-minute video(by Alex Cequea of act.tv) that clearly explains that concept
- You might be wondering if charter schools address that issue. My research has shown that this is a highly complex issue, so I don't feel qualified to offer a strong stance yet. So far, though, it doesn't look promising. According to research from Brown University, "even in the best case the positive effect of attending a charter school only slightly offsets the disadvantages of black and Hispanic students." Some of the issues appear to include: minimal state oversight, their "business model," increased racial segregation, and cherry picking the most desirable students
- In the United States today, the majority of our children still attend racially-concentrated schools (27% in predominantly nonwhite districts and 26% in predominantly white ones, versus the others that are more mixed)
- Schools in the South today are just as segregated as they were 50 years ago (typically with black & Latinx students attending some schools and white & Asian students attending others)
- Much of that is due to deliberate strategies to gerrymander school districts to include certain types of students and exclude others. Because schools rely heavily on local taxes, drawing those borders around small, wealthy communities benefits the kids who live there at the expense of those who don't
- Neighborhoods also have major health impacts on the people who live there
- For example, many areas with a high POC population are known as food deserts, meaning that people who live there have limited access to healthy foods like fresh vegetables. This is because lower-income people are less attractive to supermarkets, so small corner shops open in those areas instead, and they tend to only sell less-healthy, more heavily-processed foods
- The CEO of insurance company Aetna said in 2017 that your zip code is more significant than your genetic code when it comes to health. And, the list of the 50 US cities with the lowest average life expectancy—a full 13 years below the national average—tended to be populated largely by people of color. This study makes that link even clearer, showing that cities with a high segregation score (i.e., high racial clustering) averaged a 17.1 year lower life expectancy than the national average
Whether we mean to or not, white people think of neighborhoods with a lot of people of color as "bad" neighborhoods.
Also, by looking at crime statistics, it might seem like certain areas should be avoided. But, those statistics aren't necessarily telling the whole story.
- The disparity across those neighborhoods due to redlining and other unfair practices have led to deeply ingrained and unconscious racist beliefs in many white people
- A University of Chicago study showed that stereotypes influence perceptions of neighborhood crime levels. Study participants perceived that a higher percentage of young black men in a neighborhood indicated a higher level of crime
- Other research has shown that most white people won't say something overtly racist like, "I don't want to live in that area because a lot of black people live there." But, they will say something like, "I wouldn't want to live south of Main Street" (knowing that that's a predominantly black neighborhood)
- It's not even that people who say things like that are consciously being racist—it's just that white people have so thoroughly associated neighborhoods full of people of color as being unsafe or low-end
- In fact, in one study, a group of white participants was asked to look at profiles of people and houses. They gave very similar class rankings to people, whether white or black. But, it turned out that they were much more comfortable being racist toward neighborhoods. When told that a house was in a predominantly black neighborhood, participants were only willing to see it as a lower-class house
- Other studies have also shown that adding more black people to a neighborhood decreases its perceived quality
- It's known as "white flight" when white people move out of a community as more people of color move in. Researchers have argued in the past about whether white people leaving is more a function of racism or economics (i.e., that the neighborhood is becoming poorer or less desirable for other reasons)
- A 2018 study lent more credibility to the "racism" explanation, finding that white flight is actually more common in middle-class neighborhoods and that the percentage increase of nonwhite residents is in fact the driving factor
- Some of this has even become systematized as various apps have appeared to help people avoid "the ghetto," and Microsoft filed a patent for its GPS service to route people away from "dangerous" areas (based on crime statistics)
- This might seem innocuous at first glance. Isn't it reasonable to want to avoid dangerous areas? But if you examine the impact more deeply, one effect of technologies like these is that they further insulate white people from seeing certain realities of the world in person with their own eyes
- It might be subtle, but it's another way that more of their information about these parts of town will come from rumors they hear or what they see on the news rather than reality
- And the truth is that most of the crime statistics wouldn't actually apply to someone passing through anyway. By perpetuating the story that it's important for a GPS to help you avoid these areas, it becomes easy to imagine such a degree of danger that someone walking down the street will be suddenly attacked. The reality is that the vast majority of violent crime happens between people who know each other, not to random passers-by
- Plus, how much are those crime statistics skewed by people of color being arrested more often than white people would be for the same crime? Remember how, for example, black people are 8 times more likely to be arrested for marjiuana possession despite not using that substance significantly more than white people
- It's worth asking the question, then: Is there indeed more crime in that neighborhood, or are there just more arrests there due to racial profiling and the incorrect perception that people of color are more violent?
This neighborhood dynamic can easily allow racism to be perpetuated even when no one actually takes any consciously racist action.
- Here's an example:
- Let's say a white couple is about to have their first child. They want to raise it in the best possible way, so they research the safest neighborhoods with the best schools
- Whether they're asking other parents for recommendations or checking an online city guide, they probably won't be directed toward a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color
- So, they move and end up raising their kids in a neighborhood with few people of color
- The parents didn't do anything wrong. They weren't being bigoted. But simply because of the way our society has been structured, "good" neighborhoods have become synonymous with "white" ones
- Then, when it's time to get their kids the "best" education possible, those parents might opt for a private school—one that's out of reach of most people of color
- So, even though the parents were never being actively racist, their children end up spending most or all of their formative years mostly surrounded by white people
- Because those kids don't get to interact much with POC in person, they're mostly exposed to them via movies, advertising, and the news—places where POC are often presented as either violent criminals or merely supporting characters (i.e., less important than the white lead characters)
- Children absorb all that information unconsciously and thus end up with implicit racist ideas (more on that in the next section)
- That structural racism has negative effects on both white kids and kids of color:
- For kids of color who grow up seeing that imagery in movies and on TV, they might fear for their lives or wonder if they're just destined to become criminals themselves
- For white kids, they've lost out on the opportunity to form close friendships with people of color, which is a loss in two senses:
- First, they aren't exposed to diverse types of experiences and ways of seeing the world
- Second, diverse experiences aside, they miss out on the opportunity to be friends or have loving relationships with a lot of humans simply because they were born into different circumstances
In light of everything we've covered, it makes sense to give people of color some special privileges.
And, it's not enough to simply treat everyone with equality—because we're not all coming from the same starting line.
Because of the long history of oppression that people of color have faced, what's fair and ethical is not equality but equity—giving everyone what they need to be successful (which will vary by group).
- Some white people tend to get offended when it's suggested that people of color should receive special preferential treatment in some way
- But consider how white people gave themselves special treatment for hundreds of years. They systematically took land, money, dignity, freedom, and power away from millions of people of color
- Remember that white people literally stole all of this country's land from the hundreds of native tribes who lived here, then distributed it to other white people
- Even if the people of color alive today weren't directly affected by that, they very much still feel the effects given everything laid out earlier such as structural racism and implicit bias
- So much was given to white people that was stolen and that they themselves didn't earn, and so much power was taken away from non-white people over the centuries. So, if we want to begin to make any small amount of amends, wouldn't it make sense to give them some extra privilege when the opposite has been happening for so long?
- To be clear, what we're not saying here is that white people have been on top for so long so now people of color deserve to be on top. Rather, we're saying that white people have systematically pushed people of color down and now we want to pull them up to be on the same level
- But, because they've been pushed down for so long, business as usual won't change anything. In other words, we can't just stop being overtly racist and then hope that everything will fix itself. Rather, things have been so bad that we need to take active steps to reverse the damage that's been done
- That's what's meant by the term equity versus equality. It doesn't make sense to simply give people of color exactly equal treatment to white people because our society is still structurally racist and implicit bias is still very real in most white people. So, the term "equity" instead means to give more to those who need more—it means giving everyone what they need to be successful
- For example, it might be equal to give the same resources to a school in a high-income neighborhood and one in a low-income neighborhood. But, because the low-income school likely faces a number of additional challenges (e.g., more single-parent families, more kids who can't afford lunch, more kids who have to support their families in additional ways, etc.), it probably wouldn't be fair to expect those kids to achieve exactly the same educational outcomes with the same budget. Instead, it would be equitable to give that low-income school additional resources
- Here is a great webpage that clarifies those concepts with some helpful images (and explains what's not quite ideal about the most common image used to explain equity vs. equality)
- The suggestion here is not that people of color need special treatment because they're inherently less capable, less skilled, or less intelligent. Instead, it's that white people (and systems) are implicitly (or overtly) racist against them. In other words, it's not a level playing field
- This Harvard Business School study found that resumes that were "whitened" (e.g., by changing the applicant's name to sound more white) received twice as many interviews
- This Stanford study found that Hispanic drivers are 30% more likely than white people to get a ticket when pulled over for the same offense
- In light of facts like that, it's simply not fair to pretend that POCs have exactly the same opportunities as white people unless we proactively work to treat them differently
- Given hiring quotas in some organizations and affirmative action at some universities, it might even be true that people of color are sometimes given opportunities ahead of white people. But white people tend to assume that this happens far more often than it actually does
- If this is an important issue to you, it's worth watching 5-10 minutes of this MTV documentary at the linked time.
- They explore how white students feel discriminated against in terms of not being able to apply to certain scholarships that are only available to nonwhite people. Yet the fact is that, overall, white students still receive 40% more scholarships than students of color
- NPR also interviewed an expert on college financial aid who said that white students still receive 72% of scholarships compared to minorities who only receive 28%. So yes, there are some scholarships that are only available to students of color, but white students are still disproportionately getting more scholarships
- Also, students of color aren't just getting in thanks to the color of their skin—they still have to earn it. Based on a 2003 Supreme Court case, schools must prove that they're not automatically admitting people solely based on race—these students of color must be good candidates on other grounds as well
- Even so, Ijeoma Oluo, an author of color, writes in her excellent book about how her just-announced promotion at work was retracted and given to a white woman instead. It turned out that the white woman had complained that she'd been at the company longer and that Ijeoma was "obviously" being promoted simply because she was black—even though Ijeoma had the highest stats in her department, had been taking on extra projects, and had been working late almost every night despite having two kids at home
- If this is an important issue to you, it's worth watching 5-10 minutes of this MTV documentary at the linked time.
- The bottom line is that after centuries of taking away the power of people of color and forcably limiting their access and opportunities, the ethical thing to do now is to give them extra opportunity, even if that sometimes means some sacrifice on our part as white people