A recent study sponsored by the National Science Foundation found a
five-year decline in African-Americans' net worth and a wealth gap between
black and white Americans that continues to expand despite a booming economy.
The Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a national survey conducted every five
years, found that from 1994 to 1999, the net worth of the median black
household decreased by 17 percent to $7,000. During the same five-year period,
the net worth of the median U.S. household rose 9 percent to $59,500. The net
worth for white households reached $84,400.
For every dollar of wealth the median white household held in 1999, the
median black household held barely 9 cents, noted Frank Stafford, director of
the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, which
conducted the PSID study. In a recent interview, he said his team was
surprised by the persistent racial disparities in wealth accumulation even as
the economy continues to expand.
This growing gap in racial wealth is social dynamite, capable of badly
aggravating already tense race relations. Because of this destabilizing
potential, social activists increasingly are turning their attention to issues
of wealth disparity.
Although the PSID study did not focus on reasons for the wide wealth gap,
it noted that the bullish stock market was the primary reason most households
had experienced gains in their net worth. In 1999, the study found an
estimated 71 percent of white families held wealth in the form of stock
holdings or individual retirement accounts. Capital gains triggered by
skyrocketing financial markets boosted the wealth of most of these families.
Only 17 percent of black households hold wealth in stock or other investments.
"Our research has shown that the portfolio choice to hold stocks or even a
bank account depends on whether one's parents did or did not hold such
assets," Stafford notes. Wealth accumulation is a family affair and low
ownership rates are passed from generation to generation. Even today, Stafford
notes, more than 40 percent of African-American families report that they have
no bank account.
Because it was unregulated markets that fueled the trans-Atlantic slave
trade, African-Americans have had an ambivalent relationship with free-market
capitalism. And even after being freed from commodity status, black Americans
often were prevented, by public policy, from accumulating wealth or owning
Historically, African-Americans had little access to investment capital,
much less to financial markets, and consequently have developed cultural
traditions that de-emphasize the importance of such economic concerns.
Like many of the issues in black America, the wealth gap is an external and
internal problem. External because it is a legacy of a slave system that
deprived its enslaved victims of cultural and economic capital. If it is true,
as some studies argue, that generational transfers account for as much as 70
percent of household wealth, so the descendants of slaves inherit enormous
disadvantages. And that's in addition to the barriers of racism.
But it's also an internal problem in that African-Americans perpetuate
attitudes that discourage investment success. Stafford's findings about
African-Americans' reluctance to get involved in investment instruments is one
of many studies that make the same point. There is a cultural aversion to
financial investing that may be historically understandable but nonetheless is
hampering African-Americans' economic progress.
We must learn how to manage money and grow money in a capitalist society.
We must learn how to be owners and entrepreneurs, shareholders rather than
sharecroppers. These are not the words of some self-help guru pushing the
latest get-rich investment scheme. Instead they're the words of Rev. Jesse
Jackson, who, with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., has written a new book titled "It's
About The Money."
With his usual foresight, Jackson has targeted an issue of increasing
public importance. The racial gap in wealth is a destabilizing social feature
with ominous implications. In his more public role as scolding activist,
Jackson relentlessly pushes for equal access and more aggressive efforts to
address black America's external problems.
But Jackson is also waging war on the internal front against debilitating
attitudes. "We must learn how capitalism works and promote financial literacy
among ourselves and our children," he writes in the book's introduction.
"Failing to understand the role of money in a capitalist system is like being
a fish that doesn't know how to navigate water."
Jackson's new emphasis is an echo of efforts under way in many places
across the country. And it reveals that the civil rights movement is moving
away from its tradition of government petitioning and heading in new
It's a direction provoked by the need to bridge a wealth gap before it
grows too wide for America to survive.
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