I read once that of all our senses, sight is the strongest and that’s one reason why concern with skin color permeates our various cultures, so discrimination (in the classical sense of making distinctions between and among) is almost inevitable along skin hue lines.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that the recent headline on the wealth gap used language that emphasized the racial/ethnic component of that gap. From the Pew Research Center, we get the hard data divided along racial/ethnic (visual) lines to support the statement that the wealth gap is at its highest between White Americans and Black/Hispanic Americans, but from the Associated Press news story, we get this:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century. . .
The analysis shows the racial and ethnic impact of the economic meltdown, which ravaged housing values and sent unemployment soaring. It offers the most direct government evidence yet of the disparity between predominantly younger minorities whose main asset is their home and older whites who are more likely to have 401(k) retirement accounts or other stock holdings. . .
And what caught my eye in the above paragraph was this sentence:
It offers the most direct government evidence yet of the disparity between predominantly younger minorities whose main asset is their home and older whites who are more likely to have 401(k) retirement accounts or other stock holdings.
So while skin color is the marker that the information gatherers have used to break down their data, it seems from an initial reading that age is really one of the primary culprits (the other ones I’ll get to later) in the wealth disparity.
This makes sense—America’s demographics are changing, with the growth rate of minority groups overtaking that of the majority white population. So the wealth discrepancy is not necessarily because of racial discrimination (as the headlines imply by using race as the distinguishing factor), but because older people have worked for a longer time, hopefully have saved for a longer time, and because of that, have had more resources to invest. They may also have owned their houses for longer and so have not lost as much equity. Skin color doesn’t enter into those reasons.
What are some of the other main culprits in this newest wealth gap?
For many Hispanics (and Asians), it is the deterioration of the housing market. That market rose the highest and fell the fartherest in those states with the largest Hispanic populations: Nevada, California, Arizona, and Florida. And of course, who was to blame for this rush to buy? While the homebuyers have the greatest responsibility, Congress, and its push to get everyone into their own houses no matter the cost, bears a great part of the blame (thus the growth of subprime mortgages and the mandate to fulfill the “American Dream” even for those not financially ready). Younger people shouldn’t necessarily buy houses since they may need the flexibility to move quickly for job opportunities. And saddling lower income workers with house payments that will take much of their take-home pay should be criminal.
And here’s where another culprit comes into play—and that’s education.
There are large Asian populations in many of those states with the greatest loss of home equity, but there is no significant wealth gap between Whites and Asians–perhaps because Asians have the highest “education attainment” levels of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S.: 50% of Asians 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while that percentage is 31% for Whites, 18% for Blacks, and only 12% for Hispanics. From the U.S. Census Bureau:
The 2005 ASEC data reinforce the value of a college education. Among workers 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree, average earnings were $51,600 a year, while those with a high school diploma earned $28,600. Workers with an advanced degree made an average of $78,100, and those without a high school diploma averaged $19,200.
So age, home equity, and educational levels all play into the wealth gap, which is not to say that race/ethnicity isn’t a factor. After all, ethnic cultural norms affect decisions on pursuing educational goals, racial factors may affect employment numbers and the corresponding income variables, and government intervention in the housing market to ensure minorities had access to mortgage funds was certainly a decision that affected buyers along racial/ethnic lines.
But for most of the areas of life that we codify, organize and classify, the idea of “race” as being the primary reason for any and all results noted fails dismally to consider other prominent factors–other factors that may actually help us find the best ways to decrease the wealth gap.