What pundits and politicians have gotten wrong about inequality

tags: inequality

Destin Jenkins is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. In 2018 he will begin a tenure-track position as the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

From articles in the liberal press to histories of the “Frontiers of Wealth” during “America’s First Gilded Age,” the recent engagement with questions of inequality in the United States has broadened to include wealth alongside that of income disparities. Of course, scholars have long explored the relationship between the two: how income derived from ownership of bonds, stocks, and other assets can fortify and augment wealth and how intergenerational wealth offers a cushion to ease disruptions in household income. Nevertheless, the social, political, and economic consequences for middle class families whose homes were foreclosed following the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the subsequent dosages of austerity that compounded the woes of poor Americans, and the collection of rents of various sorts by the “billionaire class,” in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, have elevated the wealth gap in political discussions about inequality.

There are two problems with much of this analysis, and the one feeds back on the other. The first is a debatable chronology of the wealth gap. Some, such as Sanders, identify the mid-1980s as the watershed for the “enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the wealthiest people in this country.” Taking in his sight wealth inequality in “rich countries,” the economist Thomas Piketty has identified the 1970s as the pivotal starting point. Both interpretations miss the earlier epochs in this history of distribution.

Relatedly, underlying these accounts are implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Exploring the racial wealth gap upsets this chronology. In a recent joint report, “The Asset Value of Whiteness,” researchers Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro took up the important task of centering the racial wealth gap and debunking popular narratives that marshal dubious causal explanations—lack of savings, more educational attainment, and the like—to either explain away or offer individualized solutions to racial disparities in wealth. The authors argue that policies associated with the New Deal welfare state are the historic underpinnings of the contemporary racial wealth gap. By setting the clock, so to speak, in the 1930s, they conclude that past policies such as Federal Housing Administration guarantees and the G.I. Bill continue to haunt black and Latino/a households and reward white Americans in the present.

However, this account misses much earlier chapters: those not explicitly centered on federal policy, but around dispossession through a compact between white settlers and capital backed by state power. A much longer story would necessarily engage with enslaved black bodies as wealth-generating assets and the incredibly violent history of expropriation and coercion; what historian Sven Beckert, obliquely building off the insights of W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney, has succinctly called, “war capitalism.” What follows instead is a short history of the racial wealth gap in the years between 1870 and 1930, during a moment of new forms of state-capital arrangements. ...

comments powered by Disqus