Darrick Hamilton, a professor at the New School and one of the authors of the Urban Institute’s study—along with fellow economists Kilolo Kijakazi, Rachel Marie Brooks Atkins, Mark Paul, Anne Price, and William A. Darity Jr.—says that while many ethnic groups might do poorly in one city and thrive in another, that’s not the case for black Americans. “No matter what the geographical context is, black Americans are a low-wealth group,” he told me. “I think the disparities are going to be dramatic wherever we look.”
Hamilton says that while the statistics about magnitude are useful for distilling the gap in balance sheets, they do little to capture what the wealth gap means for black families. In practice, less wealth means diminished access to the education and opportunities that help many Americans reach the middle class. Less wealth decreases opportunities for savings, homeownership, and economic security. And limited wealth accumulation also means that parents and grandparents have little to pass along to the next generation—from paying for school to helping with down payments—which dampens opportunities for intergenerational mobility.
D.C.’s wealth inequality stems from a combination of factors. According to the study, homeownership plays a significant role: Whites living in the District are much more likely than blacks to own homes—something that’s true around the country. In the District, whites with less than a high school education were more likely to own their homes than blacks at any education level, even those with college degrees. And for those who do own their own place, home values for black owners were around $250,000, about 30 percent less than the average value for white owners. Blacks in the District have a much higher unemployment rate, lower education rates, and are much more likely to have received a subprime mortgage.
The District’s racial wealth divide has old and deep origins in centuries of racist policies. The authors highlight a few in particular: the “black codes” of the 1840s, which prevented black people from owning successful stores or working in certain professions; the return of land in the District to the South in the 1870s, which decreased opportunities for ownership among newly freed blacks; the demolition of Barry Farms—a black enclave founded by freed blacks—in the 1940s to make way for public housing and highway projects; the wave of “urban renewal” projects that swept out black businesses and residents in the 1960s and 70s. The effects of these policies have never been adequately dealt with. “Black people in D.C. have faced more than two centuries of deliberately constructed barriers to wealth building, and some of the highest barriers were embedded by design in law,” the study says.
In the present day, an influx of whiter, wealthier residents is pushing older black residents out. Though property values are increasing, which in theory helps black homeowners, many aren’t able to cash in: Blacks are less likely to own homes in the first place, and many who did were saddled with dangerous subprime loans, and lost their homes to foreclosure during the mortgage crisis. Those who still own their homes tend to owe higher amounts on their mortgages and are more likely to be underwater, making selling much less lucrative proposition than it is for their white counterparts.