Why are white families $95,000 richer than black families? This is a question that a recent study tries to answer.

According to a report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, the wealth gap between African-American families and white families has jumped dramatically in 23 years.In fact, the difference in financial assets between these two groups has increased over four times in a generation, from $20,000 in 1984 to $95,000 in 2007.

The Brandeis report also found that middle-income whites experienced a greater increase in net worth than high income blacks. Average white families earning $30,000 had accumulated $74,000, while blacks earning more than $50,000 owned only $18,000, for a wealth gap of $56,000.

To make things worse, 10 percent of African-Americans owed at least $3,600 in debt, nearly doubling their debt burden since 1984. And sadly, at least a quarter of black families had no assets to rely upon when times get rough.

So, what’s the problem here? The problem is that income equality is not translating into wealth equality and economic security for black households. Some of this is due to bad public policy, including tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and other measures that have redistributed wealth upwards— to those who are already rich and arguably don’t need more.

But there is another reason, namely, institutional racism in housing, labor and lending. The deregulation of the lending market has resulted in systemic discrimination against people of color and the poor, who pay more for credit. Those who live paycheck to paycheck borrow just to make ends meet, depending increasingly on payday lending, a.k.a. legal loan sharks, and check cashing stores that prey on these poorer communities. Blacks and Latinos have been steered into risky, costly and sketchy subprime mortgages, more than twice the rate of whites with the same income. The foreclosure crisis has wiped out what little wealth many of these families owned, placing a stranglehold on the ability of the African-American community to build wealth.

Similarly, according to another report, communities of color were disproportionately cut out of conventional mortgage loans after the housing bubble burst. A collaborative effort of several nonprofit groups, the study is called Paying More for the American Dream IV: The Decline of Prime Mortgage Lending in Communities of Color. From 2006 to 2008, prime lending in minority areas decreased 60.3 percent, compared to 28.4 percent in predominantly white areas.

What are the solutions? Well, to their credit, the researchers at Brandeis recommend the use of public policy to close the racial wealth gap. For example, wealth-building policies must specifically target families of color. And an effective Consumer Financial Protection Agency would guarantee fairness for consumers who borrow money to pay for basic expenses and necessities. Additionally, the American Dream study recommends stronger fair lending enforcement; requiring banks to fund the revitalization of damaged neighborhoods; halting foreclosures; expanding the Community Reinvestment Act to promote responsible lending and investment, and expanding the Mortgage Disclosure Act to shed light on discriminatory practices.

These suggestions make a great deal of sense, but since public policy alone is not enough, I would take it a step further. Over the years, African-Americans have found themselves in a recession or depression, regardless of the general state of the U.S. economy. Needless to say, when America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia, as the old adage goes. Perhaps the black community should consider a two-pronged strategy in turning their economic lives around.

First, “do for self” and “cooperative economics” make more sense now than ever before. What better time is there than the Great Recession to embark on a plan for economic empowerment? Black folks had their backs against the wall since day one in this country. During Jim Crow segregation, the African-American community banded together out of necessity and supported one another. They created businesses and services that the community relied upon, causing dollars to circulate throughout the community. Some black enclaves, such as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were burned down to the ground by white mobs who hated on their success. However, this is not to romanticize a difficult period for black America. Nor am I advocating some Booker T. Washington-esqe, self-help, up-by-the-bootstraps approach that ignores racial injustice and systemic inequality.

This leads to my second point. We also have a need to acknowledge and combat institutional racism. Racism in this country is not merely a few nutty Klansmen sporting white sheets and burning crosses. Rather, we are dealing with institutions and structures in society that discriminate against certain people based on race, and in a material, dollars-and-cents way. We should fight institutional racism by holding our elected officials’ feet to the fire in terms of public policy reforms. In addition, we must hold corporations accountable for their business practices, and boycott those financial institutions that exploit people of color.

Only then will we begin to close this ever-widening racial wealth gap.

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