“Inequality,” particularly of the economic variety, can seem abstract. It sometimes fails to move us as much as it should. Some delight in positioning it as somehow separate and apart from the concerns of “identity politics.” IT’S ALL THE SAME THING.
Inequality is economic, inequality is racial, inequality is a metric that can capture all sorts of injustice. Furthermore, in the United States of America, racial inequality is economic inequality. It’s just flipping different lenses to look at the same problem. Anyone who seeks to sow division between people who care about economic inequality and people who care about racial inequality is a cop who should be kicked in the nuts.
The drastic upswing in economic inequality over the past four decades is a problem that hurts no one more than those who have been shunted to the bottom end of the wealth scale—which is to say, black people. For a neat demonstration of this fact, consider this new analysis from the Center for Equitable Growth that explains how the modern rise in purely economic inequality has uniquely fucked black Americans.
First, know that the past half century has brought virtually zero improvement in the ratio of black to white incomes: “in 1968, just after the civil rights movement, the median African American family income was 57 percent of the median white American family income. In 2016, the ratio was 56 percent.” Legal progress against discrimination has done nothing to mitigate this racial income inequality. This is puzzling, because during the same time period, “the median African American climbed from the 25th percentile of the national family income distribution to the 35th percentile... enough to narrow the gap in income ranks between blacks and whites by almost a third.” If black people collectively have seen their position rise on the scale of income distribution, why has there not been more progress in the overall gap between black and white incomes?
The answer: large-scale economic inequality—a tilting of the income distributions towards the very rich—has made black people’s gains worthless.
To see this, consider the income earned at the 35th percentile, where the median African American stood in 2016. In 1968, a person at the 35th percentile had an income 69 percent of the national mean. But by 2016, income at the 35th percentile had fallen to be just 49 percent of the national mean. Because of rising income inequality, successfully reaching the middle of the income distribution did not provide the same economic reward to blacks as it had to previous groups of Americans.
Had America not had any rise in overall economic inequality in the past 50 years, “the ratio of median black family income to white family income would have climbed from 57 percent to 70 percent, decreasing the racial income gap by 30 percent.” But as a direct result of the post-Reagan explosion in inequality that funneled virtually all of America’s economic gains to the rich, black people have been able to do nothing but tread water, as a tiny slice of (mostly white) people got extremely rich.
Everyone who is not extremely rich is on the same side.