Point of View

Falling behind, quietly

July 15, 2010 

— I've been a football player who majored in philosophy, a Texan who believes in civil rights, a leftist intellectual obsessed with Hank Williams and a Tar Heel who prefers beef brisket to pork barbecue. I'm at ease with incongruity.

Still, in recent months, I've observed curiously distinct universes.

First, I'm a student of politics. And there is little doubt that the greatest energy and most potent fervor in our civic lives now comes from an erupted volcano on the right.

Nationally, tea parties express a visceral and unyielding disdain for government, especially the federal variety. Much of the rhetoric is overtly racist, much is comically ahistorical and for supposed "constitutionalists," much is flatly anti-textual. But drained of its extremes, and of its hates, the tea party movement is a thunderous claim by an assertedly aggrieved, almost exclusively white membership that too much of its money is being taken by the government. Armed or otherwise, they're primed to fight.

Locally, the Wake County school board has launched an analogous war. With the diversity policy interred, economically disadvantaged, mostly black, kids will be more effectively corralled. Suburban schools can be left to their more congenial circumstance. Sure, evidence suggests that the concentration of at-risk kids threatens to compound poverty with diminished opportunity, but we've had enough "social engineering." Our schools are not, apparently, wrought with public mission or obligation. We seek private enclaves. Each to his own. And his own kind.

Both here and across the country, it is a season of reckoning - a backlash of white discontent.

But I also study poverty. And that means one pays attention to race as well. Latinos (23.2 percent) and African- Americans (24.6 percent) are about three times as likely as whites (8.6 percent) to live in poverty. These federal figures are tied to traditional measures of impoverishment - that is, they are based on income - the dollars families bring home each month to secure the essentials of life.

In recent weeks, though, we've seen an array of studies based not on income, but wealth - the resources that households manage to accumulate. Wealth, of course, not only replicates itself, generating additional income. As important, it provides essential buttress against the misfortunes of economic dislocation and duress. It thus offers a necessary and illuminating measure of both opportunity and challenge. Our racial wealth disparities are horrifying.

The Insight Center's 2010 report found that, nationally, black households, on average, generate about 62 cents for each dollar of income secured by white households. But for "every dollar of wealth owned by the typical white family, the typical family of color owns only about 16 cents." The N.C. Assets Alliance, in its newly released "Prosperity Grid," found that our "households of color" own just 14 cents for every dollar owned by whites.

Concurrent with these efforts, Brandeis University concluded a sophisticated study of wealth accumulation by 2,000 black and white families from 1983-2007. Thomas Shapiro, the report's author, concluded that for these households, "the racial wealth gap has more than quadrupled over the course of the past generation." While average white family resources rose from $22,000 to $100,000, black family wealth, beginning much lower, scarcely moved.

The causes of such daunting racial wealth inequity are disputed and complex. Historical patterns of discrimination, debilitation, and ownership-preclusion, extended by inheritance, play huge roles. Real estate red-lining and housing segregation cast long shadows. And sadly, subprime mortgages, predatory loan and payday lending schemes have been directed toward communities of color.

But less obvious turns contribute as well. Our largest housing program, by a ton, is the mortgage deduction. It flows, dominantly and perversely, to those with bigger houses and more money. We subsidize pensions and health care policies that are more generous to those with higher incomes. In recent decades, we dramatically reduced estate and capital gains taxes, changes heavily targeted to the richest among us. We tax, astonishingly, much capital-based income at lower rates than ordinary salary.

It's no mystery there's anger afoot in the land. The surprise is the tea partyers aren't black.

Gene Nichol, a professor of law at the UNC School of Law, is director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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