By Adam Serwer
October 2020 Issue
Americans remember the occasion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the March on Washington, but this is a shorthand: The 1963 event was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King and others in the civil-rights movement did not see the goals of civic equality and economic justice as severable. Yet they, too, struggled to persuade white Americans to devote the necessary public resources to resolving the yawning economic disparities between Black people and white people.
“White America, caught between the Negro upsurge and its own conscience, evolved a limited policy toward Negro freedom. It could not live with the intolerable brutality and bruising humiliation imposed upon the Negro by the society it cherished as democratic,” King wrote in The Nation in 1966. “A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.”
King was right. The racial wealth gap remains as wide today as it was in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed. The median net worth of the American family is about $100,000. But the median net worth of white families is more than $170,000—while that of Black families is less than $20,000. According to William Darity Jr., an economist and Duke public-policy professor, fully a quarter of white families have a net worth of more than $1 million, while only 4 percent of Black families meet that threshold. These disparities in wealth persist among middle- and low-income families. In 2016, according to Pew, “lower-income white households had a net worth of $22,900, compared with only $5,000 for Black households and $7,900 for Hispanic households in this income tier.” These disparities are not the product of hard work or cultural differences, as one conservative line of thinking would have it. They are the product of public policy, what Darity calls the “cumulative damages” of racial discrimination across generations.