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'The Color of Wealth': A Racial Money Divide

ED GORDON, host:

It's no secret that there's a class divide in this country, and from all indications it's growing. It's also no surprise that there's a close connection between class and race.

But what some people may not know is the role the government played in creating this divide. A new book details the ways government policy and programs widened the divide.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with one of the authors of The Color of Wealth, Professor Rose Brewer of the University of Minnesota. She says much of the riches in the country today resulted from the historic exploitation of people of color.

Professor ROSE BREWER (Author, The Color of Wealth; Professor of Women's Studies, University of Minnesota): Wealth was certainly built on the backs of many of the groups we discuss in this book. When it comes to African-Americans, certainly African slaves were wealth in and of themselves, and they produced wealth.

I always say they produced the take-off wealth that made it possible for this country to become the significant economic power that it became, and is currently. Labor was expropriated from Asian descent people; the Japanese and the Chinese played a key role. And clearly land played a role in the case of the southwest with the Mexican population and the Latino appropriation that occurred later on over time.

We also get into a discussion of how these practices benefited whites in this society.


Let's take a look at a couple of different historical periods. One is slavery, and the other one is the World War II era.

Black people were property, as you put it, as opposed to being able to own property. Do we have any idea of how much wealth was either owned in the form of black Americans, or how much wealth was produced by people of African descent?

Prof. BREWER: Most economists have tried to do a cumulative estimate of this, over historical time, from the inception of slavery up to a particular contemporary point, what figure are we looking at. And often that is done in the context of what kind of reparations might be paid if we were to pay for, or even attempt to pay for, the wealth that was produced.

It has been very difficult to come to an estimate. But, in addition, complicating that was the expropriation of black women's labor, reproductively. And we've not even begun to think about what that means.

CHIDEYA: Let's move forward to the World War II era. Slavery was over, and presumably people had an equal shot in this society. Tell us how the government allowed certain opportunities for certain groups and not for others during the World War II and post-World War II era.

Prof. BREWER: One of the largest public policy initiatives of this country occurred in that period, and that was the GI Bill. And it made a tremendous difference in the launching of, I would call, the post-World War II middle class.

For white veterans, when it came to GI benefits regarding education, African-American GIs did not have access to white universities, with few exceptions. They had access to historically black colleges, but these colleges could not accommodate the demand. There was just an overflow of demand and there simply wasn't space. And so getting the credentials, getting the training that perhaps could have given many more a leg up, was not possible.

Even the federal housing authority did not make sure that black GIs had access to suburban housing. They did not have access to integrated housing.

CHIDEYA: Let me just cite something that you have in your book. It's by an author, Joe Fagan. It says:

(Reading) "Without slave labor, it seems likely that there would have been no successful textile industry. And without the cotton textile industry, it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power. The business profits made off of enslavement were thereby transmitted across generations."

And I cut out a little bit of the middle, but even for families who did not directly benefit from slavery, how do we see the legacy of what happened at the inception of this country filtering down into wealth?

Prof. BREWER: Building those great industries on the back of slave labor certainly opened up a space for the incorporation of the white working class, and ultimately the building of the white middle class, and certainly a white elite. So whether you were an owner of slaves or not, the process of building this country under conditions of racism and white supremacy opened up a space for all whites that - that space was denied to people of color, to African-Americans. And if you had those resources in one generation, they certainly can be passed down to a second and third into the present period.

I mean, this is very hard for individuals to see in this society. Clearly, in a society where racism has been so ubiquitous and hasn't ended to the present time, all whites have a leg up in a way that people of color typical typically have not had.

So part of our argument is to put these facts on the table so people can have a bigger terrain from which to mobilize and organize. And it's not simple; it's not uncomplicated. But it does open up a different kind of conversation.

CHIDEYA: Rose Brewer is a Professor in the Department of Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota. She's also the co-author of, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide.

Thank you so much.

Prof. BREWER: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.