Money  /  Longread

What Is Owed

If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.

Fifty years since the bloody and brutally repressed protests and freedom struggles of black Americans brought about the end of legal discrimination in this country, so much of what makes black lives hard, what takes black lives earlier, what causes black Americans to be vulnerable to the type of surveillance and policing that killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, what steals opportunities, is the lack of wealth that has been a defining feature of black life since the end of slavery.

Wealth, not income, is the means to security in America. Wealth — assets and investments minus debt — is what enables you to buy homes in safer neighborhoods with better amenities and better-funded schools. It is what enables you to send your children to college without saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and what provides you money to put a down payment on a house. It is what prevents family emergencies or unexpected job losses from turning into catastrophes that leave you homeless and destitute. It is what ensures what every parent wants — that your children will have fewer struggles than you did. Wealth is security and peace of mind. It’s not incidental that wealthier people are healthier and live longer. Wealth is, as a recent Yale study states, “the most consequential index of economic well-being” for most Americans. But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.

While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for black Americans, it is white Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today. As soon as laws began to ban racial discrimination against black Americans, white Americans created so-called race-neutral means of maintaining political and economic power. For example, soon after the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, white politicians in many states, understanding that recently freed black Americans were impoverished, implemented poll taxes. In other words, white Americans have long known that in a country where black people have been kept disproportionately poor and prevented from building wealth, rules and policies involving money can be nearly as effective for maintaining the color line as legal segregation. You do not have to have laws forcing segregated housing and schools if white Americans, using their generational wealth and higher incomes, can simply buy their way into expensive enclaves with exclusive public schools that are out of the price range of most black Americans.