Perhaps years from now, when President Obama writes his autobiography about his time in office, we’ll learn all the details about his conversation with Pope Francis. We knew before the meeting that economic inequality would be a topic of discussion, and afterwards we were told it was part of the conversation.
Yet, I’m pretty certain that the elephant in the room was not discussed. Despite overwhelming evidence that a racial wealth gap exists and persists in the U.S., it remains a taboo topic in the mainstream media and most politicians studiously avoid offering targeted solutions to help close this gap. But this issue is ignored at our nation’s peril given the anticipated growth of racial and ethnic groups over the next few decades.
Like South Africa, the U.S. has maintained racialized policies that have stood in the way of people of color earning wealth and passing it on to the next generation. A brief overview of these policies include: the appropriation of Native American lands and the use of termination and assimilation policies to keep them oppressed; the sanctioning of uncompensated slave labor for people of African origin and the use of housing, educational, and economic segregation to perpetuate their isolation; the use of occupational and educational segregation and the denial of citizenship status to marginalize Latinos; and the adoption of exclusionary laws in the 20th century that sought to keep people of Asian origin from purchasing land or owning businesses.
The effects of these racialized policies have been exacerbated by discriminatory practices that persist. For example, the subprime mortgage crisis — in which lenders expressly targeted communities of color for faulty mortgages — had a direct role in decimating wealth in communities of color who are more dependent upon home equity as a source of wealth. According to Pew Research, from 2005 to 2009 the median net worth of Hispanics fell 66 percent, African Americans 53 percent, and Asian Americans 54 percent as a result of the loss of homes and home values following the 2007 recession. In comparison, Pew found that the drop in the wealth of white households was only 16 percent, falling from $134,992 in 2005 to $113,149 in 2009.
Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence pointing to equally stark racial disparities in savings, investments, credit, debt, entrepreneurship, and education. No matter what the prognosticators say about the increasing efficiency of new technologies, we cannot expect the U.S. economy to be driven on autopilot. Who will purchase goods and services from businesses and who will keep our democratic engines running if the majority of the population is steeped in poverty? The nation will need to help maximize the contributions of the rising majority to maintain its democratic institutions and to ensure its economic leadership in the world.
While the politicians and the media may not yet get it, there is a growing sense of urgency among researchers, analysts and advocates who recognize the need for targeted strategies that invest in asset building for communities of color. While this policy agenda appropriately includes a focus on jobs and income, it also encompasses the broad range of public and private assets that families need to ensure economic security especially during tough economic times.
But incredibly the national dialogue has been fixated on a narrow set of policy prescriptions, many of them throwbacks from the past that not only ignore the racial aspects of inequality but also tinker around the margins of what it will take to build a thriving, diverse, and strong middle class.
I agree with Congressman Paul Ryan who recently argued that it’s time for an “adult conversation” about economic inequality and mobility. But this conversation has to go beyond policy platitudes and stereotypes. A real adult conversation would recognize that our nation’s current policies, largely designed to help wealthy people and corporations maintain and grow their assets, are unsustainable and that structural reforms that seek to build wealth in historically marginalized communities are desirable.
Given that the U.S. has a track record of churning out almost 240 years of discriminatory policies, it is now time for policymakers (and their staff) to break free from the chains of implicit and explicit bias to embrace targeted reform strategies that consciously seek to build assets and economic security for Americans of all backgrounds.
This article first appeared on GlobalPolicy.tv.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a social change nonprofit dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments.