Black wealth remains elusive, by Charlene Crowell

2/8/2024, 6 p.m.
For America, Black History Month brings opportunities to revisit our nation’s lessons, achievements, and unfulfilled promises, capturing our attention as …

For America, Black History Month brings opportunities to revisit our nation’s lessons, achievements, and unfulfilled promises, capturing our attention as well as our hopes. Yet nothing hits home harder than the painful reminders of how so much of Black America continues to struggle financially, despite an economy that reports low unemployment, a robust stock market, and low inflation.

Whether discussing kitchen table economics, or yesteryear’s grievances, money – or the lack thereof – is an ongoing and dominant concern. Now is a good time to examine the policies and practices contributing to why Black wealth remains so elusive for people whose work ethic often is far larger than their paychecks.

The Federal Reserve’s recently updated Survey of Consumer Finance 2019-2022, analyzes post-pandemic trends – particularly as they affect racial wealth gaps.

In 2022, Asian-Americans had a typical family wealth of $536,000, the highest of any race or ethnicity, and nearly twice the typical white family’s wealth of $285,000. But these six-figure wealth assets did not include either Black or Latino households. Instead, a typical Latino family held only about 20 percent of the wealth of the typical white family (about $61,600), and Black family wealth was even lower at $44,900, only 15 percent of the wealth held by white families.

“Despite strong growth in wealth for non-white families over the past two surveys, we remain far from racial equality, reflecting the large differences in wealth that have persisted for decades,” states the report.

Recently the Brookings Institution independently analyzed the Fed’s data in a new publication entitled Black wealth is increasing, but so is the racial gap, citing the effects of public policies against Black participation in proven wealth-building assets.

“Policies that privilege white-ness are reflected in higher levels of wealth for the average white family, which can be leveraged across generations to generate greater wealth and advantages,” wrote Brookings. “This became very clear during the pandemic:

Black households made major gains through housing and business equity, yet that growth paled in comparison to white households’ gains from investment returns.”

For example, Brookings found that in 2020 Black businesses employed 1.3 million people and created over 48,000 new jobs. If access to capital could be available to more entrepreneurs to begin new businesses, or expand existing ones, greater Black wealth likely would result.

In a separate but related analysis, Brookings examined how redlining of Black business districts suppressed wealth-building, similarly to how lowered appraisal values of Black homes suppress wealth-building in majority-Black neighborhoods.

“Our research found that storefronts and shopping centers in communities with higher shares of Black residents are valued measurably lower than otherwise comparable properties in communities with fewer Black residents”, wrote Brookings last November in Building Black wealth through community real estate ownership. “We estimate that the undervaluation of majority-Black ZIP codes results in aggregate wealth losses of $171 billion in retail space for the owners of these properties...By comparison, owner-occupiers of housing lose an estimated $235 billion in majority-Black ZIP codes.”

Imagine what Black wealth could be derived if these billion-dollar discounts were removed from Black and Latino communities. Until or unless public policy reforms effectively address these historic inequities, racial wealth gaps will persist. The financial bottom line – regardless of color – is that people cannot invest what they do not have, or are shut out from mainstream lending. Let’s embrace the lessons of history and enact policies to increase lending for minority homes and business owners, to close the nation’s racial wealth gaps.

Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending.