Home / General / How not to talk about race and class

How not to talk about race and class


This Urban Institute report regarding wealth disparities and race/ethnicity is getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, the report manipulates statistics to push a dubious conclusion, instead of emphasizing a progressive message that actually is supported strongly by the same numbers it quotes.

The report’s evidence for its claim that disparities in wealth are growing between whites on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other, is that the ratio in “average” wealth between white families and black and Hispanic families grew from around five to one to six to one between 1983 and 2010. The average white family had a net worth of around $290,000 in 1983, while black and Hispanic families had average net worth totals of around $60,000. By 2010 the average white family had a net worth of $632,000, while black and Hispanic families had average net worth totals of $98,000 and $110,000 respectively. (All figures are in 2010 dollars).

But if you take a look at the footnotes, specifically footnote 3, you discover the following: the median white household’s wealth has gone from $91,000 in 1983 to $124,000 in 2010, while the median figures for black and Hispanic households have gone from $11,000 to $16,000 and $10,000 to $15,000 during that time frame. (In other words, while median family wealth grew by 36% among white families, it increased by 45% and 50% among black and Hispanic families).

This tells us two things:

(1) While it’s true the disparities in wealth between white families and non-white families (excluding Asian-Americans) remain immense, they are, on a percentage basis, actually declining between most American families of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, since of course the median figures are far more representative of the economic circumstances of most Americans than the mean numbers.

(2) For all races/ethnic groups, the differences between the medians and the means are extraordinary. Consider how much wealth must be piled at the very top of the social pyramid to produce a situation in which the “average” white family is now more than five times wealthier than the median white family. Meanwhile, the comparable ratios for “average” and median black and Hispanic families are even higher than among white families, and have also widened significantly over the past 27 years.

What these statistics really show is that the rapid growth in wealth disparities in this country have little if anything to do with race, and everything to do with class.

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  • Malaclypse

    While I agree on the importance of using median rather than mean, I don’t think that a situation where the mean black family has gone from 12 to 13% of mean white wealth, while the mean Hispanic family has gone from 11 to 12%, counts as good news for progressives.

    • Paul Campos

      The progressive message should be that wealth disparities are growing rapidly between the upper class and everybody else, not that they’re growing between whites and non-whites.

      The former message has two advantages over the latter: it appeals to a wider audience, and it’s actually true.

      • Malaclypse

        Fair enough, but your point 1 is that median wealth differences between the groups is declining. That’s true, but the starting point is appalling, and the decline is glacial. If we continue this rate of change, we could expect parity in 2,350 years or so. And that is assuming that the rate of change was constant over those 27 years, and I lack optimism in that regard.

      • Sly

        The former message has two advantages over the latter: it appeals to a wider audience, and it’s actually true.

        Yeah, it’s true. Assuming the 45% black, 50% Hispanic, and 36% white growth rates are constant over 27 year periods going forward, and given current values of median household wealth, we shall have erased racial inequality in median household wealth in approximately 800 years between whites and blacks, and 600 years between whites and Hispanics.

        But you’ll forgive me for not jumping on the “we shouldn’t talk about race anymore” bandwagon that’s popular among white progressives because they’re tired of being called a nigger-lover by Uncle Frank at Thanksgiving. Yeah, it appeals to a wider audience, but only to the extent that ignoring racial inequality is as American as apple pie, and that wider audience is still constituted by a a great deal of human-shaped shit.

        Here’s a more pertinent question, I think: If creating and maintaining an economic framework that maximizes middle-class attainment is only possible by, well, let’s call it “judiciously avoiding” racial resentment among white people… do white people deserve to be in the middle-class in the first place?

        I’d say no.

      • manual

        *this. 1) The left focuses on some many sectarian issues that ignore the big picture and 2) they focus on things that are harder to remedy and less broadly consequential.

    • Malaclypse

      And every time I typed the word “mean” in this comment, I meant “median.” Crap.

      • sibusisodan

        And every time I typed the word “mean” in this comment, I mediant “median.” Crap.


  • shah8

    Race and class aren’t that seperable.

    • chris

      This. The distribution is skewed for every race, but it’s not *equally* skewed for every race: the upper class is far whiter than the nation in general.

      So it’s not just that the rich are getting richer and most people are getting left behind — it’s that the *overwhelmingly white* rich are getting richer and most whites and *almost all* nonwhites are getting left behind.

      Wealth disparities have everything to do with class, but that also means they have quite a lot to do with race.

    • DivGuy

      There’s a New York Post article here that says otherwise.

  • mpowell

    I also think wealth is a shit measure of inequality. Income, and better, income averaged over several years, is a much better measure. Even $600K isn’t that much. People just don’t save enough. That’s a different problem, imop.

  • desertrat

    The moment I ever see the word ‘mean’ used, all I have to remember is:

    “Bill Gates walks into a dive bar with 6 broke barflies. Everyone’s mean wealth is instantly $9.7 billion.”

  • Eric in Santa Fe

    I had the opportunity to talk with William Julius Wilson some 25 years ago, not long after he had written The Declining Significance of Race. Mostly, we discussed the furor it had caused, and the number of people telling him he was way off base. If anything, his analysis looks remarkably prescient, now.

    I see he just released an updated version. Gotta add it to my queue.

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