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Wealth is a number, sure, but it’s also a feeling. I grew up living with my mom and maternal grandparents, while my dad played and coached in the NBA. For a time, our family’s safety net was held together by my grandfather’s HVAC business, but in 2001, it nearly came apart. That year, the company worked on a project performing mechanical-contracting work at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. The timeline did not account for delays. My grandfather estimates that the company lost $4 million on the project. Our house was put on the market shortly after. I loved that house because it felt like home, but also because it made me feel at home in a predominantly white world, where I felt as if my every move was on display. The house served as a symbol of wealth to justify belonging. When we sold it, I felt exposed, as though my family was showcasing the fragility of black wealth for all to see. I told friends that my family wanted to downsize. I’m sure they saw through the lie.

Americans are uncomfortable talking about money. We use careers, homes, and clothing to stand in as proxies. Certain markers in these areas signify wealth, regardless of the actual amount in your bank account. I harbor no delusions about how privileged my family and I are. As an adult, I am thankful every day for how much my family sacrificed for my freedom. But I also know that, as a whole, black wealth is delicate, because for generations lawmakers and power wielders attempted to prevent African Americans from building it. When I set out to write this story, I wanted to better understand the intricate narratives that make wealth in the black community so complex. My own understanding was rooted in the idea that while my family represented a version of the American dream, the injustices that have kept black families without a safety net for generations still reverberated throughout our history. I found those historical echoes still ringing in the stories of other families, too.

A raft of policies responsible for building the American middle class destroyed opportunities for black people to build intergenerational wealth. According to 2013 data from a paper by the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, if the average wealth held by white families magically stopped growing, it would take 228 years for the average wealth held by African Americans to catch up. When researchers from the institute looked at median wealth from 1983 to 2016 (adjusting for inflation), black families saw their wealth decrease by more than half, while white families saw theirs rise by 33 percent. While white families have a median wealth of $171,000, black families have a median wealth of just $17,600. These relationships aren’t fixed. Once you get a certain amount of wealth, keeping it within your family is much easier. It took until 1976 for the government to introduce the generation-skipping transfer tax, which was instituted to stop individuals from avoiding federal estate taxes by leaving money to their grandchildren. In 2010 (when the estate and generation-skipping taxes were briefly repealed), an estate could again escape paying those taxes on its fortunes. In Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, he praised himself for raising the estate-tax exemption to $11.2 million, which resulted in, the Tax Policy Center estimates, taxing less than 0.1 percent of estates (or about 1,900 households). America’s tax system protects the wealth that already exists, instead of the wealth that might exist if more families were in a position to build it.

It would take two centuries for black wealth to catch up to white wealth—if white wealth stopped growing. (Source: Institute for Policy Studies)

That my grandfather built enough wealth to get us into that house but not enough to keep it is partially a result of how much the cards have been stacked against African American wealth-building for generations. When World War II ended, my grandfather was only 6, but the discriminatory distortions of the GI Bill are still visible in our family’s financial history. His father, aunt, and uncles were World War II veterans. Four of them were able to secure coveted government jobs. While this may have given them stability, it did not help them build long-term wealth to pass along. White veterans, however, were encouraged to go to college, where they graduated with degrees in subjects such as engineering, according to research by the journalist Edward Humes. Even though 49 percent of black veterans (compared with 43 percent of white veterans) took advantage of some sort of education or training offered through GI Bill benefits as of 1950, that didn’t always mean a college degree. Most African American veterans who exercised their education benefits after World War II ended up pursuing vocational training, as counselors who approved the benefits steered blacks into low-paying jobs or historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). At the time, HBCUs were underfunded and did not offer engineering programs. Short on space, they were forced to turn away up to 50,000 black veterans. Humes also pointed to a survey of 6,000 job placements in Mississippi during the fall of 1946: 86 percent of the skilled, professional, and semiskilled jobs went to white veterans.

My grandfather joined a union in 1956. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, policy makers drafted it to exclude agricultural and domestic workers, so black people made up less than 1 percent of union members. Black workers continued to struggle for equal treatment in unions: 31 affiliates of the American Federation of Labor explicitly excluded black workers at one point. Membership was nonetheless an important stepping stone for my grandfather. He gained entry only after his grandmother, a maid, persuaded her boss, the entrepreneur Charlie Willard, to hire her grandson. Willard helped him earn union membership and later made my grandfather a crew foreman. He got assigned to run the crew for Pennsylvania Hospital’s first professionally air-conditioned building. As my grandfather tells it, the hospital quickly poached him, offering him a full-time job and eventually promoting him to a position with a salary of $35,000.

Eventually my grandfather wanted more than a steady paycheck. Although he may not have thought about it at the time, he wanted to build wealth. So he started a side hustle installing air conditioners for restaurants, bars, and colleges. He branded white trucks with his name and hired a crew to help him fulfill orders while he was at the hospital. When the hospital discovered his other business, his boss gave him an ultimatum: his side hustle or his full-time job. He chose the side hustle. He recalls union companies early on working with their friends to secure low prices from suppliers, blocking him from getting projects.

My grandfather’s story is one of success (this year his business turns 50) that also illustrates why black success is used to claim that the playing field in America is more level than it actually is. My grandfather made it, but does his success against all odds mean that it’s okay when everyone else faces those same odds and fails? A black family’s success story is reassuring proof that the system works. If my family could successfully climb upward, the argument goes, then the ones who can’t aren’t trying hard enough. They don’t have enough grit. But successful black people are also treated as extraordinary. Why? Because Americans know the system is broken. Selling our home served as a personal paradigm shift. Whereas before I felt confident of my place in the world and my ability to keep climbing, afterward I felt my risk tolerance crumbling. I began to see my family’s story in the context of a larger history of a system that unfairly advantages white families at the expense of black ones. So I went to college and studied practical subjects instead of pursuing a passion. I landed jobs after college meant to build wealth, instead of pursuing writing or jobs in publishing, industries that privilege the children of wealthy families who can afford to subsidize young workers in low-paying entry-level jobs. My family, despite their struggles, gave me the means to choose differently. Even so, my initial choices highlight the complicated nature of black success: It’s knowing that as you rise, you have a responsibility to make sure your family and community rise with you. For better or worse, American wealth is a family affair.

I.

The author's grandfather
The author’s grandfather started his own company. The family had to sell their home when the business hit a rough patch.

Part of what I struggled with growing up is that my dad’s profession is the archetype of black wealth and success. I remember overhearing a classmate once saying something along the lines of “Rich black people play sports.” This idea about what professional sports means conflicted with the reality of a limited generational safety net. My dad still works in the NBA, coaching for Oklahoma City. He guards his emotions as well as he used to guard other players, and I recently flew there hesitant to have a frank conversation about money and, more specifically, what it was like for him to go from the South Side of Chicago to a world of success. We sat in the living room, his dog, Bailey, lying by his side, the television muted in the background. It was a high-pressure time in the season, and I was nervous that he wouldn’t want to delve into the past. But as he did, I came to understand how inaccurate it is to assume that people deemed worthy as “making it” step into one world while leaving behind their own personal history.

Maurice Cheeks grew up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public-housing development in the country; it’s now gone—the last building was torn down in 2007. The development opened in 1962, housing up to 27,000 people despite being planned to hold less than half of that. By 1975, 92 percent of the families relied on government assistance. My grandmother was well known around the building she lived in. She used to belt out my dad’s and uncles’ names to get them to come inside as soon as the streetlights turned on. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros once said, “I don’t know of another place in America where there are 15 shootings and five killings over a weekend.” My dad’s general feeling was that you lived your life as best you could. “It was rough,” my dad told me. “But we didn’t really think about it at the time.”

My dad will be the first to say that he did not make it out on his own. His basketball career started because a friend won a basketball scholarship to West Texas State (now West Texas A&M University) and told the coach that he would accept only if the coach also took my dad. (The coach has said that he also recognized my dad’s talent). In 1978, my dad was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with a starting salary of $30,000. Today that income would be worth roughly $123,000, or just less than the mean salary for a pharmacist. My dad was making money, but at a salary that did not go as far as the public perception of professional sports portrays. It was another example, like my maternal grandfather’s story, that “making it” is not the same as freedom through wealth.

One cannot talk about closing the wealth gap in any meaningful way without acknowledging that middle- and upper-class black families have lost and are still losing wealth because African Americans were ushered into segregated neighborhoods and denied the same benefits extended to white Americans. As soon as my dad started earning a salary, he sent much of it back to my grandmother, who continued living in the Robert Taylor Homes when he first started playing in the NBA. Research shows that my dad’s experience is typical for black people who have family members in need. The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the world’s longest-running longitudinal household survey, began in 1968 with 18,233 people, and now spans four generations or more. According to data from the 1994 PSID analyzed by Darrick Hamilton from the Ohio State University and Ngina Chiteji, now at New York University, 36 percent of middle-income black families’ parents lived in poverty, compared with 8 percent of middle-income white families’ parents. When Hamilton, Jermaine Toney (a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University), and William A. Darity Jr. analyzed 2013 PSID data, they found that the parents of middle-income black families were more than eight times as likely to face poverty as the parents of middle-income white families. The mean net worth of black grandparents in the sample amounted to $56,713—for white grandparents it was $357,831. Those family ties may add up to an unending drain on the financial resources of anyone who makes it. Hamilton and Chiteji found that family circumstances, in general, are responsible for middle-class black families having 27 percent less wealth than their white counterparts. Hamilton and Darity wrote, “Inheritance, bequests, and in vivo transfer account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other behavioral, demographic, or socioeconomic indicator.” In other words, most people at the top of the wealth ladder are not there because of grit. More likely, the government or a family member helped lift them up—by paying for their education, or giving them a loan, or helping with rent.

Members of middle-income black families were more than eight times as likely as those of comparable white families to have a parent in poverty. (Source: PSID)

Wealth doesn’t just add lift. It ensures that when you fall, you land softly. We landed softly because my mom and her parents had something to sell—our house—when my grandfather’s business took a wrong turn. I also had support from my father. But that’s what makes us different. We’re more like the typical upper-income white family than the typical black one. The economist Raj Chetty and three other researchers found that a black child born to parents whose income is in the top quintile has roughly the same likelihood of falling to the bottom quintile as remaining at the top. White children, however, are about five times as likely to stay at the top when born there than they are to drop to the bottom. Those researchers were looking only at the power of income in that part of the study. But it stands to reason that wealth helps, too. A middle-income white family is more likely to be wealthier and own their home than a black family at the same place on the income scale. If you land a plum job at Google or Goldman Sachs, staying affluent will be a lot easier if your parents have already paid off their mortgage than if they’re still writing rent checks in public housing. Critics will argue that people who don’t climb upward when receiving help from welfare programs are taking advantage of the system. Welfare programs, however, are not one size fits all. Each program is intricately woven with the biases of policy makers, and rarely helps families build long-term wealth. As was the case with the Robert Taylor Homes, the site selection itself was designed to maintain segregation: In 1950, the city-council aldermen approved sites only in the “black belt,” instead of on the vacant land in white areas initially proposed by the Chicago Housing Authority.

Black children raised in the middle 20 percent of wealth distribution are much more likely than their white peers to fall into the bottom 40 percent as adults. (Pfeffer / Killewald)

None of this is made easier when your family doesn’t know how to talk about money. Fluency in the language of intergenerational wealth is an advantage passed down along with the money itself. When my dad left the Robert Taylor Homes and started earning a salary, he didn’t know what to do with it. “The accountant came and asked me why I wasn’t cashing my checks,” he told me. “I used to hide my checks under my mattress when I started making more money.”

II.

Josephine Jones in her brownstone.

Most Americans cannot expect one job to drastically alter their financial position. The thesis of the American dream is that consistent hard work pays off over time. But what if playing by the rules is still not enough to maintain wealth through multiple generations? What if the rules are stacked against you? I met Wendy Jones in December after learning about her mother, Josephine E. Jones. According to Wendy’s research for her book about her mom’s life story, An Extraordinary Life: Josephine E. Jones, Jo Jones may have been the first black woman in management at a Fortune 500 company. Wendy grew tearfully excited when talking about her mother—the words couldn’t come fast enough. She has meticulous files documenting her mother’s life, which she carefully showed me in the back of a restaurant near her home in New Jersey one late winter afternoon. She wants her mother to be remembered not only for breaking new corporate ground, but as someone who aimed to help her family and her community achieve whatever they wanted—including wealth. When Jo purchased a historic brownstone home in Harlem, her goal was to leave it to Wendy. What she ended up leaving Wendy was money, not wealth—for reasons that have everything to do with why many black Americans still do not feel free in this country.

Jo was born in 1920 in South Carolina—her father was a sharecropper. At 26, she traveled north and started working as a cook for wealthy families, often being required to stay past midnight to wash dishes and take care of the families’ children. In 1953, Jo paid $100 a month in rent, which was twice the gross median rent in the New York metro area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but the best a black woman with a child could do. In 1951, Jo got a job working for a temp agency supplying cooks and maids to homes and companies. She received a two-week assignment to work for Standard Brands, a packaged-goods company, that ended up lasting 31 years, after the company hired her and eventually promoted her to run the employee cafeteria. When Wendy graduated from college, her mother handed her a folder full of notes from a course on home buying and told her to help them find a permanent place to live. In 1975, Wendy found a listing for 137 West 122nd Street in The New York Times—a house designed by the architect Francis H. Kimball, with original woodwork, stained-glass windows, and five original gas-burning fireplaces. Jo walked through the doors and knew she was home.

When she tried to apply for a loan, the loan officer at Citibank (known at the time as First National City Bank) admitted that the bank did not lend mortgages in Harlem. So Jo persuaded the seller to agree to a purchase-money mortgage instead, essentially taking out a loan straight from the seller instead of a bank. Jo even agreed to cover the seller’s property taxes for that quarter after the owner wavered on the decision to sell. All of this took place even after redlining had been officially outlawed in 1968, with the passing of the Fair Housing Act. During redlining, the Federal Housing Administration, which insured private mortgages, considered whether black people lived in a particular neighborhood when making its insurance decisions. In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered.” Black people were denied traditional mortgages. White families bought homes, moved to the suburbs, and gained equity, while black families were largely prevented from increasing their wealth through homeownership. By 1970, black people made up 92.2 percent of central-Harlem residents. Jo established a spring cleaning to rid the neighborhood of debris, and later led a task force to rid the neighborhood of drugs. She fought to register her house—which became part of a historic district—on the National Register of Historic Places in order to secure the only loan she could get. (A spokesman for Citibank said it does not keep records of its lending practices going that far back but is committed to fair lending practices.)

Jo’s tenacity brought her many things, but financial security wasn’t one of them. In 1984, Jo alleged she was forced out of her job because of her age. With advice from her former boss (having a person in your corner who is comfortable challenging authority helps), Jo filed a lawsuit against her former employer, which was settled out of court. Jo was also offered only half the severance of employees in other departments.The loan had helped her repair the exterior of the historic house, but the interior was still not yet restored when Jo left her other job, in 1989. When Jo got sick in 2006 she couldn’t safely stay in the house. Her pension from work was half of what she got from Social Security, and was not enough to cover the cost of care.

Jo’s job as a cook came with long hours and zero benefits. She was employed for five years as a domestic worker without being eligible for Social Security: When Social Security was created in 1935, agricultural and domestic workers were excluded, causing 65 percent of African Americans to be denied benefits. Social Security encompassed multiple programs, at least some of which were explicitly created to hurt black people. While drafting Title I (a program administered by the state to elderly in need) of the Social Security Act, southern members of Congress “did not want to give authority to anyone in Washington to deny aid to any state because it discriminated against Negroes in the administration of old age assistance,” Edwin Witte, the executive director of Roosevelt’s economic-security committee, wrote in his memoir. Toward the end of her life, Jo had no assets beyond her partially restored home.

Wendy sold the home in 2008 after moving her mother to New Jersey, closer to where Wendy lived with her partner and son. Wendy and Jo split the proceeds from the sale, with half going toward Jo’s medical and assisted-living bills, Wendy told me. Then, Wendy’s partner lost his job, and her half of the house money was almost all they had left to live on. “Even when you get a windfall, it’s not like you can invest it, because you have to make sure everything doesn’t fall apart on your day-to-day life,” Wendy said.

Wendy’s windfall—half of the $1.4 million the house sold for—was more than most families, black or white, will receive at any one point in their lifetime. The more telling number, though, is what Wendy chose to give up. When I asked Wendy for details of the sale, she unveiled a striking detail: Despite the house being in what is now one of the most desirable markets for Manhattan’s single-family homes, Wendy chose not to list 137 West 122nd Street on the open market. As her mother’s legal guardian, Wendy knew that Jo would have wanted a black family to own the home, and Jo’s neighbors had offered to pay the appraisal price. For high-priced New York real-estate assets, a seller may get significantly more than the appraisal price on the open market. Wendy’s decision is not surprising to me: Because homeownership was denied to many black families for decades, something larger than money is at stake when it comes to selling a home. Jo’s lifelong quest was to build up the black community around her; letting the market decide the next occupant of the home would have been to put the power back into the hands of the invisible policy makers whose legacy of redlining had left her without a mortgage in 1975.

Wendy’s decision was characteristic of black philanthropy in general: tangible, specific, and focused on immediate impact. Philanthropy in the black community has a long history of building wealth for the group at the expense of the individual, even if that doesn’t maximize one’s tax advantages. Starting in 1969, in a memorable example, members of the Black Panther Party fed thousands of children free breakfast before school, hoping to keep kids full so that their minds were free to learn. The program helped form the basis of a federal food program in schools. Instead of tax breaks, members of the party were beaten and killed. A more congenial example comes from David Bennett, the vice president of development and alumni relations at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s HBCUs. The Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, recently donated $100,000 to the school, he told me. In order to donate the money, churchgoers gave up eating out, buying coffee, and going to the movies for 21 days. The funds, Bennett said, helped 34 students, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition, graduate. HBCUs continue to carry a heavy burden to educate the black community: Howard graduates more African American students who go on to pursue science and engineering doctorates than Harvard, MIT, and Yale combined. Yet, according to a Wall Street Journal report analyzing 2017 data, HBCU graduates have a median debt that’s more than 30 percent higher than that of graduates at other public and nonprofit four-year schools. Parents of HBCU students borrowed an average of roughly $14,000 in federal student loans to help pay for the 2017–18 academic year.

The neighbors to whom Wendy sold the house kept it for 10 years, but, she said, weren’t able to make the necessary renovations to rent it out. Wendy sees the house as an effort geared toward building intergenerational wealth. “Now, at least, the family has the funds for the education of their young people,” Wendy emailed me. “So, indirectly, my mother helped another black family have wealth to pass on, and their children will go on to do good in the world and help others.” The house sold in 2018 for $2.2 million.

III.

As a kid, Derrick Darby dreamed of getting superpowers to help his mother.

Derrick Darby is the first and only black tenured professor in the University of Michigan’s philosophy department. I first learned of Darby after reading a profile of his department chair, Elizabeth Anderson, in The New Yorker. Anderson is known for arriving at moral theory by thinking about how the world actually works. She said Darby was recruited to Michigan because his work fits that mold, allowing people to connect normative issues with the realities of contemporary injustice. I went to Ann Arbor to talk with Darby about the practical realities of policy proposals such as reparations or a wealth tax. What I found was evidence of why Darby is very much the exception, rather than the rule, in the false meritocracy of a nation founded by slaveholders. Darby’s journey is rife with the often overlooked details of everyday life that shape the nuances of wealth in America.

Darby grew up in New York City’s Queensbridge Houses, a public-housing development that is now the largest in the country. It has birthed some of the greatest hip-hop artists of our time, such as Nas and Mobb Deep. Success for Darby was never about a number in his bank account. It was about getting out of the projects.

When Darby was growing up, he dreamed of escape. “I used to think about being a superhero, because that was going to be my way out,” he told me. “I’d get some superpowers and I could be strong … I could help my mother.” Darby talked about trying out different exit routes. Basketball? No, he wasn’t going to be in the NBA. Boxing? He got punched, instantly had a splitting headache, took off his gloves, and walked away. But Darby was inquisitive; he hung out with older kids and a group of ex-convicts in the neighborhood. They used to call him “Little Socrates.” It was the ex-convicts, people Darby looked up to because they made it clear that their path was not the only path, who told him to focus on knowledge as a means of escape.

He just as easily, however, could have absorbed another message. Despite being labeled by a teacher as a good student in the third grade, Darby was suddenly considered a problem in the fourth. Darby remembers changing his little sister’s diapers before going to school. The cycle of being saddled with child-care responsibilities and being punished for not doing well in school took its toll, and he struggled to stay focused on his education. Making it past fourth grade proved crucial: Subsequent teachers reinforced his third-grade teacher’s message and invested in Darby, buoying his path through high school and, along with a guidance counselor, helping him with college applications until he was accepted to Colgate University. Once at Colgate, his philosophy professor latched onto his talent and encouraged him to pursue his doctorate. When Darby talked about policies such as universal child care, he said they’re not just about helping parents. Policies such as that would help alleviate the responsibilities that can fall on children when families are strapped for resources.

Academia still plays mostly by the old rule books. Scholars are comfortable citing traditionalists. Try asking “What is injustice?” instead of “What is justice?” in philosophy, Darby said, and you’re viewed as breaking from custom. Philosophy represents the type of discipline where the system may still not be built to accommodate the diversity it claims to want. “On the one hand, because of the recent push for diversity in the discipline black philosophers are novelties; yet on the other hand, their race threatens the white male homogeneity that has traditionally characterized the discipline,” writes Jameliah Shorter-Bourhanou, an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgia College. Quayshawn Spencer, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says that 66 percent of tenured or tenure-track black philosophers are the only black philosophers in their department, according to 2013 data. Michigan will soon go back to having zero tenured black professors: Darby has accepted an offer from Rutgers University to be the Henry Rutgers Professor of Philosophy and direct the soon-to-be-created Social Justice Solutions Research Collaboratory.

Philosophers are known more as thinkers than as earners. With Darby’s new position, however, the two may coincide: He will be joining one of the top philosophy departments in the country. Darby’s trajectory may not have begun with the explicit goal of building monetary wealth. Rather, it was important for him to do what he loved and build wealth along the way. Both of those opportunities were nearly taken from him when he was up for tenure at another university. Darby showed me a letter from a colleague in the philosophy department, detailing why the university should deny Darby tenure. (I reached out several times to the professor who wrote the letter for comment, but did not receive a response. The university declined to comment.) The letter questioned his ability to teach graduate students and suggested that many scholars who reviewed his research were biased. “It was an attack on me,” Darby said. He believes the letter partially meant to suggest that any support he had within the university and beyond was driven by racial sympathy, instead of the strength of his ideas. The professor titled it “Department Minority Report,” a typical name for a dissenting document that goes against the committee’s majority vote, but perhaps a cruel reminder when you are one of the few people of color among your colleagues. At the end of the review process, Darby was denied tenure.

Derrick Darby was able to challenge his tenure ruling. For others, without the right funds or networks, that would be harder to do. (Erin Kirkland)

Darby filed an appeal and later learned the contents of the letter. He also hired a lawyer out of his own pocket, no small thing on his entry-level academic salary. A ruling conceded that there had been “unusual procedures” and offered Darby another chance to be reviewed. But Darby declined, and instead accepted a position elsewhere. “At the time, it was really difficult, knowing that they changed the rules,” Darby told me. “You climb this ladder—but then, when we start climbing that ladder and we get into those spaces, the rules change.” Darby knows that he is one of the lucky ones. He could see how someone who had not been in a position to challenge the tenure ruling may have ended up leaving philosophy altogether. For Darby, the system eventually worked. For others, without the right network or funds, it fails them.

IV.

There is a supposed right way to be black in America: You’re encouraged to live in certain neighborhoods; you must make certain sacrifices for the sake of education. When I was younger, I railed against these constraints. Money only complicated the picture. In time, I came to understand that the image money creates stands in for all the things we don’t say about who gets to be free. As a child, I found refuge in my house and all it stood for. As an adult, I understand how much of my family history was wrapped up in that simple feeling.

Even the black families who make it to the top are still facing the headwinds that knocked African Americans back down the path for so long. While the Americans who self-identify as “middle class” but hold the majority of the wealth in the United States—“the 9.9 percent,” in Matthew Stewart’s memorable phrase—debate private versus public school or whether to remodel their kitchen, upwardly mobile black families continue to overcome a history of oppression with their eyes toward wealth as a reconciliation of the freedom long denied. “Making it” is not merely an end point. It is so much more than that.

The grandparents of middle-income white families had more than six times the mean net worth of similar black grandparents. (Source: PSID)

Wealth has become an animating issue in the 2020 presidential election. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax. Under Warren’s plan, according to an analysis by the UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the wealthiest 75,000 households in the United States would be subject to payments of 2 percent of their net worth above $50 million and 3 percent of their net worth above $1 billion every year. Warren says the resulting revenue would be enough to cover her proposal to cancel student-loan debt for 42 million Americans and provide a free public-college education. (She would also provide funding for HBCUs.) The wealth tax represents a step toward federal recognition that people don’t succeed on their own. But her proposal, and those like it, hint at the symptoms, not the cause. They do not address the fact that once you graduate from college and land a job, your wealth is still in the hands of others (your boss or even a colleague, as the case may be). Or that if you don’t wish to go to college and instead want to pursue a bold business idea, your freedom to do so depends on your parents’ ability to support you. This means different things for black and white Americans. Put another way: Believe for a moment that the world’s Googles and Amazons had been invented in garages, as their founding myths assert. Would companies like that exist if failure meant living in the projects instead of a middle-class garage? What we need is a formal reconciliation with the way wealth is built and maintained. To put the freedom of choice created through wealth back into the hands of the people who have had that freedom denied to them for far too long. How do we do that? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.

Arguably the most important act of reconciliation took place at a college graduation in Atlanta this spring. Robert F. Smith, an investor and the wealthiest black person in the United States, said he would pay off the student-loan debt of the graduating class at Morehouse College, an HBCU. Smith told the graduates, “True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people, and the liberation of communities we come from depends upon the grit and the determination and the greatness inside of you.” What struck me about Smith’s gift, compared with other philanthropic efforts or policy arguments, was this: He put the power of choice back into the graduates’ hands by acknowledging the shared history of African Americans.

I grew up with the freedom to choose because my family overcame incredible odds. In fact, maybe I have that freedom only because they dared not to follow a conventional path. It is this friction that was difficult for me to come to terms with: The right to pursue a passion and build wealth seems to be reserved for a select few. Maybe no one has the right to do both. But you’re less likely to have to choose if the generation that came before you was wealthy, and less likely still if that generation was white. Closing the wealth gap sounds like an abstract policy agenda, but it’s really about giving more people the power to choose how to care for themselves and their families. The individuals I spoke with know this responsibility intimately. But black wealth is not separate from American wealth—it is the definition of American wealth. Everyone who shares in this country’s wealth also has the responsibility to lift others up. There is no such thing as an individual success story.

* Photo-collage images courtesy of Maura Cheeks, Wendy Jones, Derrick Darby, John Swart / Beth A. Keiser / SJP / AP. Data for visualizations courtesy of the Institute for Policy Studies, PSID, and Fabian T. Pfeffer.