White Americans have about 13 times the wealth of black Americans, a Pew Research report found in 2014, the widest the gap has been since the 1980s.
The wealth discrepancy between black and white Americans is the consequence of decades of housing, land, and education discrimination. Bringing black wealth in line with white would require large systemic and policy changes to tackle those underlying problems—and the political will to do so.
William Darity, Jr., an economist and professor at Duke University, studies the intersection of inequality, wealth, and race in the U.S. I spoke with him about the recent presidential election and whether or not Donald Trump’s proposals for helping poor and middle-class Americans would extend to poor and middle-class black Americans.
The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gillian B. White: Some have argued that economic inequality more than race, gender, etc., played a huge role in this election—that working-class whites got fed up and voted for change. Does that ring true to you?
William Darity, Jr. : I’m part of a coterie of economists who have been engaged in the development of a subfield we call “stratification economics.” At the heart of stratification economics is the premise that satisfaction for any individual is connected to their perception of the maintenance and improvement of the relative position between the individual and the social group (or groups) with whom they identify. Clearly, more strongly white-identified Americans have viewed white supremacy as threatened. And they have responded in like fashion by supporting Trump.
White: So were you surprised by the outcome of the election, or not so much?
Darity: I was not surprised. Trump’s triggers for overt expressions of white nationalist sentiment made transparent the depth of white tribalism in America—and suggested that his election was a realistic possibility. Marginalized social groups frequently have been chastised for overemphasizing “identity politics,” but the election was thoroughly about “identity politics” by the dominant social group. So I was not surprised, but I still was dazed on the morning of November 9th.
White: Trump has promised that some of his economic policies—his big infrastructure plans for instance—will help middle- and lower-class Americans, which, in theory, would help some minority populations. Do you think those changes and their suggested benefits will come to pass?
Darity: The effectiveness of the big infrastructure plans for job creation and growth are contingent on the response of the private sector to the tax and regulatory incentives that Trump plans to enact. Of course, these types of measures seek to bribe the private sector into doing the right thing. A number of economists, including Darrick Hamilton at the New School, Pavlina Tcherneva at Bard College, and L. Randall Wray at University of Missouri at Kansas City, and myself, have advocated the direct implementation of big infrastructure plans by the public-sector provision of an employment guarantee—a direct route to full employment. The Trump approach is indirect, with consequences that are less certain.
White: And what about proposed tax cuts?
Darity: Trump has proposed the use of tax incentives and reduced regulations to stimulate private-sector expansion of investment and employment. If those measures are genuinely effective, the impact on income inequality could be marginally positive or negative depending upon the impact on wage income versus profit income. However, these measures are highly unlikely to alter the degree of wealth inequality. And the major wealth-redistribution measures that will be needed to close the wealth gap also are highly unlikely to be implemented under a Trump regime.
White: During the campaign, Trump routinely lamented the plight of black Americans, but often cast them in scenarios that aren’t wholly accurate—for instance, the black-Americans-in-inner-cities trope from one debate. How do you think Trump’s understanding of black America’s economic circumstance manifests in presidential policy?
Darity: My impression, especially from listening to an interview of one of Trump's black surrogates Darrell Scott, is that Trump’s proposal to address black economic deprivation is to “gild the ghetto.” Again, using incentives like subsidies or tax breaks, Trump seems to intend to pursue a program of intense business expansion in black urban communities. This, of course, harkens back to urban development projects pursued by the federal government in the 1970s, particularly under the Nixon administration. Those projects did not solve the problem of urban black poverty, and I’m doubtful that it will solve the problem now. If the Trump administration is successful in gilding the ghetto, in all likelihood it will accelerate processes of gentrification now underway, displacing the current residents of these neighborhoods altogether. If it is not successful, the lack of economic opportunity in those communities will remain unchanged.
White: Trump’s main jab, when it comes to racial inequality, is that the Democrats haven’t exactly done much in the way of improving economic equality for blacks. How right is he?
Darity: Trump is correct that continued support for the Democratic Party has not translated into equality for black Americans. Unfortunately, in what still is, at base, a two-party system in this country, the Republican Party has not been the party of Lincoln for many, many years; it is the party of Strom Thurmond. So it promises nothing better.
White: So do you think that things get worse under the Trump administration.
Darity: Accurate predictions are difficult to make. For example, most supporters of Barack Obama probably did not anticipate a net decline in the black-white wealth ratio—from an already low level—under the administration of a black president. But that is precisely what has happened. The ratio fell from approximately ten cents per dollar to six cents per dollar of median wealth. What is clear is neither Trump nor Clinton advanced any proposals to address the racial wealth gap directly.
If anything, the types of intensively pro-business policies the Trump administration has suggested will be among their priorities will, at best, leave wealth gaps largely unchanged. At worst, they will widen the gaps. Regardless, there is no reason to anticipate that neither the degree of overall wealth inequality nor racial wealth inequality will fall under Trump’s leadership.
White: The argument that I’m seeing a lot of late—largely from Trump supporters—suggests that race, or perhaps more precisely racism, isn’t as substantial a part of the poverty equation as liberals have made it out to be.
Darity: Blacks with some college education have a higher rate of unemployment than whites who did not finish high school. Blacks with a college degree have two-thirds of the net worth of whites who did not finish high school. Comparing blacks and whites from families with similar levels of education and income, blacks acquire more years of schooling and credentials than whites. Black parents who provide some financial support for their children’s higher education have one-third of the net worth of white parents who provide no support for their children’s higher education.
Donald Trump is a racism denier. At the heart of this position is the belief that if people have been willing to vote for a black man, they cannot be racists. Willingness to embrace an individual from a disdained group does not mean that the disdainful feelings about the group are gone. An individual black person easily can be viewed as an exception. The key stereotypical belief that is sustained by racism denial is the gaslighting claim that persistent racial inequality in the U.S. must be due to black dysfunction and self-defeating behaviors. From the perspective of the racism deniers, blacks must bear personal responsibility for their current condition.
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