The racial wealth gap is one of America’s most intractable problems. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re going to solve it anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. In fact, there are some simple things you should be doing right now.
While we tend to think of slavery and Jim Crow as being historical institutions, their legacy lives on. Today white families hold approximately 10 times the wealth of black families. If nothing changes, we can expect to pass on this split between "two Americas" to our children, grandchildren, and beyond. One America will be inherited by the privileged majority, and one by families of color, who will continue to lag behind in homeownership, employment, wage levels, and overall health. For generations, black babies will continue to die at more than twice the frequency of white ones during childbirth.
Easy solutions to a problem as deep seated as the racial wealth gap simply don’t exist. People of color need real wage increases as well as transparency in hiring and promotion. But these things can only be accomplished in the realm of politics.
So what can you — especially if you are white — do right now to help? Consider the following four steps:
Don't Hide Race from Your Kids
You can’t change behavior that you can’t measure, so check yourself. No, seriously, check yourself. A good place to start is by taking an implicit bias test such as the Implicit Association Test from Harvard. This is important because, besides saying that they would have voted for Obama a third time if they could, one of the most oft-repeated refrains in woke liberal communities is that their inhabitants “don’t see color.” This platitude, however well-intentioned, elides the realities of the world. If you are blind to color, then you are probably also blind to biases that are rooted in color.
We all see color, so stop telling yourself you don’t, and stop thinking you can teach your kids not to. Children see color, just as they see the differences between red Legos and blue Legos. What they may not have done yet is assign a social significance to color, or more accurately, bought into the social contrivance that associates the shade of a person's skin with a certain set of behaviors and attitudes. It’s understandable to try and shelter your children from the harsh realities of the world. But you may be doing them, and all of us, a disservice.
The biologically immature brain of a child makes them more likely to adopt stereotypes as a way to organize the world. Children are sponges for information, and the world around them is constantly telling them that race is an important social category.
This is one area in which the responsible thing to do is to pierce the magic of childhood in order to raise a better adult. Children see race as a puzzle that they need to solve, and so you have to actually talk to them about it. And if you think talking to your child about racism is difficult, just think of the black parent having to have that conversation when their child is on the receiving end of biased behavior.
Vote for School Board
Navigating life at school can be a challenge for children of any race. But in addition to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, children of color get a crash course in systematic bias once they enter the school system. It’s one of the first encounters that they have with authority figures outside of the home and is often what engenders the idea of being an “other,” someone subject to unfair and punitive measures. Black children, for example, are about four times as likely to be suspended from school than white children, and often for offenses enforced at the discretion of the teacher like defiant behavior or tardiness.
The interaction with the school system hits people of color from other angles as well. The more often you’re suspended, the fewer your opportunities for learning, likely further decreasing chances for economic advancement. The school to prison pipeline is also very real. Twenty-three percent of Texas students who were disciplined in high or middle school in 2011 ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer, according to a Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute and Council of State Governments study.
And for such an important issue, school board elections generally suffer from low voter turnout that typically maxes out at about 10%. Kids or no, apathy towards local school board elections may be more consequential in shrinking the racial wage gap than your vote for state senator. And, Activism 101, the lack of overall participation gives those who do an opportunity to have an outsized impact.
The exact responsibilities of a school board can vary greatly from district to district, but often include playing a role is setting the school calendar, allocating funding, and even weighing in on certain staffing decisions. Use these scantly attended elections to put into power officials who understand the role of the racial wealth gap in hampering students of color and have proposed concrete solutions for fixing it.
Serve on a jury
The racial wealth gap and the criminal justice system are inextricably linked, particularly in the arena of employment. Not only are black job applicants significantly less likely to receive interview offers period, as many studies have shown, but the hiring penalty from incarceration also lasts longer, according to data from the National Institute of Justice.
As is well documented, black Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites, particularly with respect to sentencing for low-level drug crimes. Blacks and Hispanics make up 57% of those incarcerated for drug offenses in state prison, despite making up a smaller percentage of the population and despite using drugs at similar rates. Many of them are young black men who now have a criminal record for an offense that they do not disproportionately commit, and this likely results in a barrier to economic prosperity that can last for generations.
Few people are in a position to reduce or commute sentencing -- that’s typically the domain of judges, prosecutors who request sentences, and governors -- but most citizens of age are eligible to sit on a jury. The power is therefore in the hands of white Americans who strive for colorblind justice. This is because black people who do trust the criminal justice system enough to show for jury duty are more likely to be arbitrarily dismissed from serving by attending prosecutors through peremptory challenges.
No matter how woke, no one likes jury duty. But try to remember two things. First, privilege in motion will continue in a state of motion unless acted on by an outside force. Next, like school board voting, you have to participate to win.
Oh, and Tip People of Color More
That’s pretty much it. But if you need further convincing, read on.
While you may not manage a payroll and have the power to affect real wages for people of color, you do have control over how much you tip. The practice of tipping, in general, has a long history of being used to hide wage theft by employers, and workers who depend on tips are more likely to be people of color. This is important because the income disparity between blacks and whites is the largest contributor to the racial wealth gap, and both black and white consumers tend to tip black service workers less than white ones. New research from the Cleveland Fed makes the cogent case that while the wealth gap was created by slavery and the legally sanctioned economic oppression of people of color that followed, income inequality is what has supported it since the early 1960s.
Once an issue on the periphery, discussions of government reparations for black America descendants of slaves are now common both on the democratic debate stage and in mainstream media publications. But the wonderful thing is that you don’t need to wait for the government to act if you believe that you are the beneficiary of an economic advantage because of the shade of skin you were born with. You can simply tip workers of color a little bit extra.
In sum, none of these actions will make you a hero. Millions of people serve on juries, vote in elections, uphold pay equity, and acknowledge the problem of implicit bias each day. Any real or theoretical effort to confront racial wealth inequality need to be both bold and multi-pronged, involving state and federal governments, the private sector, community and religious organizations — as well as motivated citizens.
The problem is large and seemingly intractable. But faced with the urgency of needing to accomplish so much so quickly, we need to do both the big and the small. This is because we know that if we can change ourselves, the tendencies in the world can also change. Change can start today. And rather than bemoan privilege, we need allies to put it to work.
Yemi Rose has been a financial communications strategist for over two decades. He has served in numerous advisory roles as a Capital Markets Intelligence Associate and as an Investor Relations Director for several Fortune 50 companies. He is the founder of OfColor LLC, a startup platform launching in 2020 that is dedicated to improving the financial lives of people of color.