Why do middle-class blacks have far less wealth than whites at the same income level? The answer is in real estate and history.
In 1973, my parents sold their modest house on Detroit’s West Side to Roosevelt Smith, a Vietnam War veteran and an assembly-line worker at Ford, and his wife, Virginia (not their real names). For the Smiths—African Americans and native Mississippians—the neighborhood was an appealing place to raise their two young children, and the price was within their means: $17,500. The neighborhood’s three-bedroom colonials and Tudors, mostly built between the mid-1920s and the late ’40s, were well maintained, the streets quiet and lined with stately trees. Nearby was a movie theater, a good grocery store, a local department store, and a decent shopping district. Like many first-time home buyers, the Smiths had every reason to expect that their house would be an appreciating investment.
For their part, my parents moved to a rapidly growing suburb that would soon be incorporated as Farmington Hills. Their new house, on a quiet, curvilinear street, was a significant step up from the Detroit place. It had four bedrooms, a two-car attached garage, and a large yard. It cost them $43,000. Within a few years, they had added a family room and expanded the small rear patio. Their subdivision, like most in Farmington Hills, was carefully zoned. The public schools were modern and well funded, with substantial revenues from the town’s mostly middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers. All of the creature comforts of the good suburban life were close at hand: shopping malls, swim clubs, movie theaters, good restaurants.
My parents lived in the Farmington house for a little over twenty years. When my father retired in the mid-1990s, the property had appreciated by about $100,000. They did not get rich from the proceeds of their home sale—indeed, after adjusting for inflation, the house was worth slightly less than they paid for it, not even counting interest costs and taxes. But it nonetheless allowed them to walk away with about $80,000.
For the Smiths it was a far different story. Detroit had been losing population since the 1950s, and especially after the 1967 riots there was massive “white flight” from the city. The neighborhood in which the Smiths invested went from mostly white to black within a few years, along with the rest of Detroit. For the city as a whole, those who remained were not as well off on average as those who left, meaning that even as the tax base shrank, the demand for city services went up, setting off a vicious death spiral. Soon, schools and infrastructure groaned with age, and the city’s tax base shrank further as businesses relocated to suburban office parks and shopping centers. By the end of the ’70s, the decline of the auto industry and manufacturing generally compounded Detroit’s woes, as production shifted to Japan or the South in search of cheaper labor and fewer regulations.
As the downward cycle continued, investors and absentee landlords—fearful that their property values would decline as Detroit got poorer and blacker—let their properties run down. Rising crime led to a drop in pedestrian traffic both downtown and in neighborhood shopping districts, and also to increasing demand for additional police protection. As the cost of city services surged and the tax base shrank, Detroit came to have among the highest property tax rates in the nation, which was another reason for people to move out if they could.
Meanwhile, places like Farmington Hills, which were all white in the ’70s and ’80s, were direct beneficiaries of Detroit’s decline. The seemingly insatiable demand for suburban real estate raised housing values; well-funded schools attracted families with children; local malls had few, if any, vacancies; and new shops and office parks seemed to spring up daily.
The same year that my father retired, I visited my childhood neighborhood, and drove past the Smiths’ house. The lawn was lush, the shrubs well tended. They had built a garage. The old siding had been replaced and the original windows updated. I stopped at a local real estate broker’s office to check out the housing prices in the area. The Smiths’ home was not for sale, but another house just two blocks away, almost identical to it and in move-in condition, was on the market for $24,500. Over two decades, Roosevelt and Virginia Smith’s house in my parents’ old neighborhood, despite love and care and investments, had appreciated by only about $7,000. After adjusting for inflation, their house was worth about 60 percent less than they had paid for it.
In the United States, where real estate is the single largest source of asset accumulation for the middle class, the story of the Sugrues and the Smiths goes a long way to explaining the expanding disparities between white and black wealth. The two families—like many Americans—invested in real estate both for its use value and as a gamble on the future. But one family did far, far better than the other.
Every once in a while, a scholarly book fundamentally shifts how we understand a problem. One of those books was published in 1995, two years after my parents sold their house. Sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s Black Wealth/White Wealth stepped into a stale debate about race, class, and inequality in the United States with new data and a fresh perspective. The authors acknowledged the gains of the civil rights era: Black-white income gaps had narrowed. Minorities were better represented at elite institutions of higher education than could have been imagined in 1960. And while in the ’60s the most prominent black elites were car dealers or owners of “race businesses” that catered to black customers, by the end of the twentieth century the number of black engineers, lawyers, and corporate executives had grown. Newsmagazines trumpeted the high incomes of black sports stars and celebrities. “The New Black Middle Class” became a tagline. African Americans might not have wholly overcome the legacy of centuries of slavery and segregation, but they had come a long way.
But Oliver and Shapiro told another story, a sobering one about the persistent gap between black and white wealth. They methodically gathered and analyzed data about household assets, like real estate holdings, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, cars, and other property, that constitute a family’s portfolio. Their findings were staggering: despite all of the gains of the previous quarter century, the median black family had only 8 percent of the household wealth of the median white family. The asset gap was still strikingly wide among middle-class and wealthy blacks, who, despite their high incomes, still had about a third the assets of comparable whites.
The racial wealth gap has several specific causes beyond the broad legacy of systematic racial segregation, discrimination, and unequal opportunity. Wealth is passed down from generation to generation—even if only modestly. But going back generations, blacks had little opportunity to get a stake hold. Upon emancipation, they were mostly penniless, without land or access to credit (see Reid Cramer, “The American Dream, Redeemed,” page 45), and almost all blacks were excluded from the various Homestead Acts that, beginning in 1862, allowed so many poor white families to accumulate land and, with it, wealth.
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