Issues of racial inequity are increasingly at the forefront of America’s public debate. In addition to urgent concerns about racial bias in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, activists highlight deeply connected issues of economic exclusion and inequality. No metric more powerfully captures the persistence and growth of economic inequality along racial and ethnic lines than the racial wealth gap. According to data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, the median white household possessed $13 in net wealth for every dollar held by the median black household in 2013. That same year, median white households possessed $10 for each dollar held by the median Latino/a household.
Research probing the causes of the racial wealth gap has traced its origins to historic injustices, from slavery to segregation to redlining.1 The great expansion of wealth in the years after World War II was fueled by public policies such as the GI Bill, which mostly helped white veterans attend college and purchase homes with guaranteed mortgages, building the foundations of an American middle class that largely excluded people of color. The outcomes of past injustice are carried forward as wealth is handed down across generations and are reinforced by ostensibly “color-blind” practices and policies in effect today. Yet many popular explanations forracial economic inequality overlook these deep roots, asserting that wealth disparities must be solely the result of individual life choices and personal achievements. The misconception that personal responsibility accounts for the racial wealth gap is an obstacle to the policies that could effectively address racial disparities.