How have I gained by being white? The Supreme Court’s mixed decisions on whether the University of Michigan may consider race in selecting students set me wondering about what preferences my own family might have received over the years
Like most people without inherited wealth, I tend to see my success as the result of my own hard work and abilities. My retirement accounts and the down-payment on my house were saved dollar-by-dollar out of my paychecks. I worked my way up from minimum wage jobs to become a salaried professional. Couldn’t someone of any race have done the same?
To see all the effects of race requires looking back a few generations. I left college with no student loans. Why was my father able to pay for my college education? As a World War II-era veteran, he went to graduate school on the GI Bill and got a subsidized mortgage from the Veterans Administration, benefits from which most veterans of color were excluded. As a homeowner, he got the mortgage interest deduction, a tax break unavailable to the majority of people of color who were renters.
Looking back another generation, my grandparents had Social Security benefits when they reached age 65 in the 1960s, relieving my father from the responsibility of supporting his parents. Since agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from the original Social Security law passed in 1935, most people of color in my grandparents’ generation put little or nothing into the Social Security system, and so got little or nothing at retirement. People of color my father's age were more likely to be supporting their parents and so less able to pay for their children’s college.
If I’d been born a person of color in 1956, the odds are very likely that I’d be less well off today. In 2001, the typical white family had $120,000 in net worth (assets minus debts), seven times as much as the $17,000 net worth of the typical family of color, according to new Federal Reserve data. Most white people are homeowners with retirement accounts thanks to government policies that boosted our parents’, grandparents’ and ancestors’ assets. The financial benefits of affirmative action programs are dwarfed by the benefits of, say, the Homestead Acts of 1862, which gave millions of acres to white settlers, and which excluded people of color.
When President Bush weighed in with the Supreme Court against the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy, he was acting within this long tradition of the federal government promoting the advancement of white Americans. There has been no legal challenge to Michigan’s preference for “legacy” applicants (children of alumni), or to the preference given to low-income white students. Only the boost to qualified applicants of color was attacked.
“Slavery was a long time ago,” goes the argument against preferences for African Americans. And it is true that the best-known transfers of wealth from people of color to white people – taking land from Native Americans and Mexicans, as well as slavery – are no longer in living memory of Americans today. Segregation and legal discrimination were outlawed with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But long after de jure racism was past, policies with de facto racially disparate impact continued. White people still tend to get easier credit terms, better schools, shorter prison sentences, and more generous government benefits than people of color.
White people can be proud of our grandparents’, our parents’, and our own hard work, and still recognize that hard work is only one ingredient in gaining assets. Economic development requires government infrastructure of the kinds provided to white people throughout U.S. history.
What would it take to eliminate the racial wealth gap? Race-based affirmative action in college admissions, hiring, and promotion is just one of many elements needed to assist all low-income Americans to build basic assets. After WWII, the GI Bill built a white middle class. Now we need a new GI bill that gives opportunity to everyone.
As beneficiaries of white advantages in a democracy supposedly based on the principle that “all [humans] are created equal,” we white people have a responsibility to speak up for widening the circle of government support to include all Americans.
Betsy Leondar-Wright is the Communications Director at United for a Fair Economy and co-author of "Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap".