The Growing Racial Wealth Gap

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its report on the racial wealth gap in American society, with some really depressing results. The economic crisis essentially wiped out the wealth gains made by people of color over the past 20 years, resulting in "lopsided wealth ratios," that "are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter-century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009."

Take a look:

2011-wealth-gaps-24.png

And again:

2011-wealth-gaps-23.png

Asians aren't included in the chart, but they saw their wealth decline by 54 percent as well.

I want to look at this in the context of our political discourse on race for the past three years or so, during which many conservatives have put forth a narrative of white victimhood in which the Obama policy agenda consists entirely of "reparations" and the sluggish recovery is Obama's racial "payback" for past grievances. As silly as the idea that Obama is a racist who is single-handedly effecting a widespread redistribution of wealth on racial terms, it's clear that on some level this narrative of anti-white oppression is gaining traction as an explanation for ongoing economic misery, given that a non-trivial number of whites, conservatives in particular, seem to think that anti-white racism is a big problem.

Yet, to paraphrase something Matthew Yglesias once said, the numbers look more like a white racist conspiracy to deprive minorities of what little wealth they've attained than a ruthless plan for gouging John Galt. 

My point here isn't to minimize the impact of America's economic doldrums on whites. Most people suffer in a bad economy. But it takes an incredible psychological commitment to one's own victimhood for conservative elites to look at numbers like these and then tell people that, while the decline in your economic circumstances is the result of some external, malignant racist force while the much larger destruction of minority middle class wealth over the past few years is due simply to those people being "losers." It takes someone with an incredibly skewed perspective to pretend that the latter simply does not exist, while focusing on the former as incontrovertible evidence of anti-white racism. Nevertheless, if the Obama administration had been more aggressive in its efforts to alleviate the housing crisis and high unemployment, I think this particular narrative would have much less traction than it seems to. 

Yet I suspect the opinion columns of the future will nevertheless march along with the typical pseudo-sociology about narratives of racial victimhood holding back people of color, even as Republicans embrace more explicitly than ever the politics of racial grievance. Few will wonder why it isn't holding them back.

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