All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
Two big ideas have changed my political thought over the past year. Fittingly for a leader of a Political Union, one hails from the right and the other from the left.
From the right, I was introduced to the idea of social capital. Through the work of scholars like Tim Carney, Oren Cass, and especially Scott Winship, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a wealth in our social networks and communities that resists financial valuation but is nevertheless highly consequential. Have you ever gotten a job babysitting from your neighbor, or found a violin teacher thanks to recommendations from your friends’ parents? Have friends or family helped keep you going through the coronavirus pandemic? Congratulations, you’ve benefited from social capital.
The second is a deeper familiarity with and appreciation for the staggering levels of racial inequality in America. I did some research on the state of racial inequality in Illinois alone over the summer, and in a nutshell, it’s not pretty. For me, one of the most eye-opening examples was a key paper by Raj Chetty and his team that exposed the debilitating effects of systemic racism on intergenerational mobility.
In this article, I hope to show you how to marry these two ideas together. What if we started thinking about solving racial inequality as a problem of social capital, that the way to achieve equality is not simply to invest in Black people, but in Black social capital - in neighborhoods, communities, and societies?
I’ll show you what I mean with a finding cited in the New York Times. Columnist Thomas Edsall wrote an op-ed in April 2017, in which he noted that the incomes of upper-middle class Black men are rising faster than upper-middle class White men, and that wealth inequality among Black people has increased. In 2009, the top 10% of Black people accounted for 67% of Black-owned wealth; for Whites, the top 10% owned 51% of all white-owned wealth. In other words, the same rising inequality that afflicts the whole economy is echoed in Black America.
What’s going on? Here’s a possible explanation.
We normally think of today’s dominant economic trend of the top pulling away from the middle as a class phenomenon. As far as White America is concerned, this analysis is largely correct. It reflects the rise to power of an elite, highly educated class of professionals that live in suburbs, drive SUVs, and excel at passing their status onto their children. But what’s happening in Black America is different. A few Black people from lower-income communities and neighborhoods attend elite colleges, and are integrated into the predominantly White elite labor market. This would explain why their incomes are growing faster than Whites: they came from low incomes as children, but earn high incomes as adults. It also would explain why wealth concentration among Black people is growing. Instead of an entire class whose status, wealth, and prospects are rising, individual people are extracted from their communities and simply join a different one. Whatever’s happening that’s removing barriers to success for upper-middle class Black people, it’s not a rising tide that lifts all boats.
It’s likely that many of the men cited as experiencing rapid income growth are the beneficiaries of opportunities offered to individual students, but denied to the community at large, such as the chance to go to a selective school or elite college. That’s important, and to some extent, based on the findings cited by Edsall, it looks like it’s working. But the realization of these opportunities depends on the social contexts of the people to which they are made available, or they will be reduced to nothing. For example, a Black student who gets into a selective high school but lives in an unsafe neighborhood with lead in its water is unlikely to be able to take advantage of that opportunity. Furthermore, a Black person with a degree at an elite college is likely to move to a White neighborhood if there aren’t good schools or good-paying jobs in Black ones. The poverty of Black communities not only prevents their residents from prospering, but also pushes the prosperous few away from paying their wealth forward.
There is a great deal of evidence that Black communities are unfairly deprived of the resources they need to thrive. Homes in Black neighborhoods are devalued by about 20% compared to similar homes in White neighborhoods. Businesses in Black neighborhoods receive less attention, and thus less revenue, than their counterparts in White ones. Small Black municipalities are also in danger of being swallowed up by much larger White ones, extinguishing Black political power and handing over their tax base to powerful White interests.
On the other hand, in a small handful of Black majority cities, Black incomes run ahead of the national median household income for all races. Why? Many of them are in Maryland, where good government jobs create thriving communities. When you invest in Black communities, it works. To successfully close the stubborn wealth gap between White and Black Americans, we must make investments that develop Black institutional health and political power, not ones that can easily be captured by White interests.
What would that look like? Start with investing in majority Black cities and municipalities, from smaller ones like Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, to larger cities like Detroit. Not only would this channel investment into Black communities, it would also help build and stabilize rare pockets of Black political power.
But there are only so many Black people living in majority Black cities. How can we address racial inequality nationwide? There are a number of excellent proposals for this. Down payment and housing revitalization grants to homeowners in majority Black neighborhoods or census tracts would fight devaluation. Grants for Black owned-businesses to start up, expand, or purchase property would concentrate wealth in their owners’ hands, create employment for others in their communities, and help strengthen key institutions of civil society. Investing in HBCUs would give Black people a place not only to earn college degrees, but also to be employed once they have them, fostering prosperous, self-sustaining Black neighborhoods. Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center proposed a National Infrastructure Bank for Black neighborhoods which would finance infrastructure and public works projects in them. It would provide employment in those areas and bolster the communities in which Black people live and grow up.
While researching the effects of communities on the outcomes of their Black children, the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” came to mind, and rightly so. But evidence clearly shows that in Black America, it’s the village that needs attention now.
Sachin Shukla is one of the co-presidents of NU Political Union. He is a viola performance major, but dabbles in public policy in his free time. His personal blog can be found at sachinshukla.com.
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