The Obsession With the Black/White Wealth Gap Protects the Elites | Opinion

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death and the mass protests that followed, there has been much talk about a "racial reckoning" in America. This has taken the form of a flurry of public interest in the work of Black public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi, as well as major U.S. corporations now proudly proclaiming "Black Lives Matter" and vowing "to make internal changes such as hiring more Black employees, appointing more Black board members, or doing more business with Black-owned suppliers."

But despite all of the energy of the age of equity, the reality is that many of the policies designed to bring about racial equity do not benefit most Black Americans, the majority of whom are poor and working class. Instead they serve the class interests of a narrow section of the Black elite, a fact that is obscured through talk of a shared Black political agenda and a race-first political posture.

And that race first agenda effectively stymies political movements that would deliver broad, universalist programs like socialized healthcare and free college that would greatly benefit Black Americans—along with many other working-class Americans.

Nowhere is the elitist nature of this form of Black politics more evident than in the current push to "close the racial wealth gap." This cause is often cast as the most pressing issue facing Black America. But it's no accident that this discussion has arisen at a time when millions of Americans have begun to look for universalist remedies to challenge the failures of the American economy, first as part of Occupy Wall Street and later, in a more pronounced fashion, with the rise of Bernie Sanders.

Homeless veteran reading
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 05: Travis Stanley, who said he has been homeless for three months and is a U.S. Navy veteran, reads on donated bedding where he normally sleeps beneath an overpass on June 5, 2019 in Los Angeles, Mario Tama/Getty Images

A typical example is a discussion sponsored by the African-American Alumni Association of the Harvard Business School called "Bridging the Racial Wealth Gap by Serving on Federal Reserve Boards." How a program targeting Black Harvard Business School graduates is going to change the lives of poor and working-class Black Americans is not entirely obvious. But this is just one illustration of the elitist nature of the racial wealth gap discourse being promoted by corporate-friendly think tanks, finance capital funded non-profits, and academics at elite universities.

Of course, to say that the focus on the racial wealth gap benefits elites is not to deny that this gap exists. Since the end of slavery up through the 1960s, a racial wealth gap was baked into the way Black labor was deployed within the U.S. economy: The political and legal structures of American society forcibly consigned 60 percent of Black laborers to sharecropper farm labor or domestic servitude.

The Civil Rights Movement did bring major improvements for Black Americans; until 1960, over 55 percent of Blacks lived below the poverty line, while today, that number is less than 20 percent.

Still, de-industrialization coupled with mass incarceration means poverty remains the central issue for Black Americans today. The reality is that the fruits of the civil rights era have been enjoyed by a small group of middle and upper-middle class Black elites. And it is these elites—not individuals like George Floyd—who benefit from the types of policies being touted as solutions to the racial wealth gap.

No one is asking Black working class and poor people, who make up the majority of Black America, if Black representation at the Fed is a primary policy concern. American elites, Black and otherwise, are pushing these concerns from the top down, presenting more Black Americans working at the Fed as the panacea to Black America's woes—at a time when millions of Americans find themselves looking for a pro-working class policy agenda.

And as Matt Bruenig has persuasively argued, the racial wealth gap exists primarily in the upper classes. The top 10 percent of both Black and white households own nearly all the wealth of their respective racial groups. Building on this insight, Adolph and Touré Reed have made the observation that if the racial wealth gap between the bottom 90 percent of Black and white Americans were to be eliminated, that would still leave 77.5 percent of this gap intact.

And yet, all the energy seems focused on the top 10 percent of Black Americans, who already own the vast majority of Black wealth.

Too much of the policy associated with a race first "Black Agenda" is rooted in an elite project that does little more than transfer wealth to the Black political class and its counterparts in the corporate world. It is a recipe for a more diverse American ruling elite—more Black faces in high places like the Fed—that will not benefit the majority of Black America.

The racial wealth gap is a reality that should not be ignored. And yet, its remedy is rooted in a class-based economic agenda that will benefit all working class and poor people, while considering the specific conditions of the Black working class and poor. The only solution to the dire economic circumstances that affect so many Black Americans is to build a politics that is centered on the Black poor and working class and that develops policy solutions tailored to their concerns.

In developing such a politics, our allies are not a Black elite that seeks to leverage Black suffering to extract wealth from the political and corporate establishment; they are other working class and poor people who are not blinded by racism.

The political advances of Black America have always been made as part of multi-racial coalitions. It's time that the poor and working-class majority of Black America forged their own political destiny based on their material interests, rather than a charade of racial unity that ends up only benefiting an unscrupulous, rapacious, and utterly cynical elite.

Pascal Robert is a writer and political commentator whose work focuses on Black politics as well as Haitian politics and history. He is the co-host of THIS IS REVOLUTION podcast.

The views in this article are the writer's own.