Building Black wealth matters

OPINION: Closing the racial wealth gap will not wash away racism, but it can help overcome the economic disadvantage that currently prevents Black voices from being heard.

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Every day, we have the opportunity to honor the contributions of Black Americans and the sacrifices made by those who fought for equality and justice. My own story was made possible by the civil rights movement. It opened emigration from non-European countries, allowing my mother and father to leave India to start a life together in Philadelphia. We weren’t rich, but I grew up with access to a good education, health care and all the other basic things necessary to succeed in life. Far too many Black families today do not have the same opportunities. 

Wealth inequality hurts all Americans, but its impact is felt particularly hard by Black communities. The statistics are shocking. According to Brookings, in 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was almost 10 times greater than that of a Black family. In fact, the Forbes richest 400 Americans own more wealth than all Black households and a quarter of Latino households combined. During the pandemic, the wealth gap has widened even further. This inequality manifests in a variety of ways, from education outcomes to health disparities to job opportunities. Democrats need to offer a vision and strategy for decentralizing wealth generation and creating new economic opportunities in Black communities. 

Making the digital economy work for everyone is a good place to start. Representing Silicon Valley in Congress, I have seen the revenue that technology can generate. But this wealth is being concentrated in too few hands. Nearly 20 percent of computer science graduates are Black and Latino, but they comprise fewer than 10 percent of technical employees and big tech companies. Correcting course will require STEM training, increased investment in partnerships with HBCUs and the creation of new tech hubs in predominately Black areas. 

The best way to ensure that communities of color can participate and benefit from the digital economy is to intervene as early as possible. The federal government should supply laptops to students who can’t afford their own and fund initiatives to help children develop basic digital skills. For college students, established partnerships with HBCUs can help overcome the networking gap, as well as the doubt Black students often face from prospective employers. A good example of this in action is the Zoom-Claflin partnership. In 2020, Zoom announced a five-year, $1.2 million partnership with Claflin University to connect Black students to tech jobs and expand their own talent pool. More companies should make similar commitments. 

In addition to training and partnerships, we need tech hubs across the country. No one should be forced to pick up and move to get a good-paying tech job. Luckily, Congress is taking action to make this a reality. The House just passed sweeping legislation called the America COMPETES Act to invest in technology and create millions of jobs. It includes key provisions inspired by the Endless Frontier Act that I introduced last year, including creating a regional technology and innovation hub program to create at least 10 regional hubs in underserved communities. I hope to see it swiftly signed into law.

There are several other steps that Congress can take to help close the racial wealth gap starting with student debt. Black students are more likely than their white counterparts to take out student loans and struggle to pay them back. President Joe Biden has the executive power to automatically cancel up to $50,000 in student debt, reach out to borrowers about their options for loan forgiveness and clear the backlog of loan forgiveness applications. He should make this a top priority. We also shouldn’t send people into debt for needing health care. Nearly twice as many Black Americans as white Americans would be unable to pay the costs of a sudden medical bill. Passing Medicare for All would help close this divide. These popular policies aren’t unreasonable or unrealistic. We can pay for them by ending tax loopholes, rolling back Republican tax cuts and passing a wealth tax.

Closing the wealth gap will not wash away racism, but it can help overcome the economic disadvantage that currently prevents Black voices from being heard. Reducing the divide will require expanding access to STEM education, training programs and good-paying digital jobs, as well as passing progressive policies to cancel student debt and provide universal health coverage. Most importantly, it will require a concerted effort from all of us—all year round. 

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna has served California’s 17th Congressional District since 2017.

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