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Race, Economic Inequality and the 2016 Election

October 05, 2016
As the presidential election nears, candidates are talking about the wage gap between men and women, but gendered income inequality isn’t the whole story. Race matters for wages as well, and to overlook how race and gender combine to produce economic outcomes is to overlook an American economic reality that should be front and center on the presidential debate stage this November.

By Gabrielle Jackson, C’18


For every dollar made by a white household, black households earn 59 cents; while the median white household earns $111,740, black families take back only $7,113 every year[1]. But broken down by gender, these statistics become even more stark.


US gender pay gap by sex, race and ethnicity, 2009US gender pay gap by sex, race and ethnicity, 2009


Black men take home 75 cents for every dollar a white man makes. But for black women, the number is 64 cents (and 54 cents for Hispanic women)[2]. The Roosevelt Institute found that unemployment among African Americans is twice as high as unemployment among white workers – a statistic that holds at all levels of education1. Black women account for eight percent of private sector employees, but only two percent of leadership roles[3].

“Black women are uniquely situated at the intersection of race, class, and gender hierarchies – historically and today,” asserts the Roosevelt Institute.

When it comes to income disparities, black women face a unique set of challenges. But to discuss them in the context of the election, we must first examine them in the context of history.

The racial rules engrained through slavery, Jim Crow, and the “race neutral” policies of the new Deal laid the groundwork for today’s black-white income disparity. And perhaps no example speaks as clearly to the way in which specific policies continue to haunt black communities as housing regulations. Through the Fair Housing Administration, established in 1934, the federal government played a direct role in enforcing housing segregation through redlining – a process that assigned value to areas based on credit-worthiness. These districts were usually designated based on racial and ethnic composition, thus encouraging white people to move out of the city while concentrating black people into low-income inner-city ghettos – ghettos that persist today[4].

Nationwide, black home ownership rates continue to pale in comparison to those of whites. According to economist Jeremie Greer, owning a home “is the primary vehicle of wealth building in this county”<[5]. This is even more important in the post-recession era when rising housing costs dramatically outpaced increases in black and ethnic minority wages. New Deal-era housing discrimination is just one example of how a century-old policy continues to have detrimental effects on the black community5.

Taken alone, the implications of these policies should elevate concerns over racial income equality to the top of today’s presidential agenda. But in 2016, what is striking is not merely that these income disparities are problematic, but that they are also getting worse.

In public sector jobs, the University of Washington found that the rate of employment for black women is lower than during pre-recession levels1. Moreover, the gap in employment between white and black workers has grown larger in every single year since 19671. These disparities persist despite the fact that black women are the most educated group in the United States per capita, according to the National Center for Education Statistics[6].

As concerns over the economy again become a talking point for Democrats and Republicans, the growing consequences of racial economic disparities should assume a prominent position in our political discourse – if for no other reason than they make America decidedly weaker.

Research shows that wage gaps hurt the economy. The American Association of University Women found that eliminating the gender wage gap would boost the economy three to four percentage points[7]. One can only imagine what the difference would be for the larger racial wage gap – specifically for black women who stand to be affected by both. It has also been shown that income inequality exacerbates differences in educational attainment. On a national scale, economists have demonstrated a negative correlation between the long-term economic growth and economic inequality[8].

 During a time in which nearly half of all Americans feel that discrimination against whites is as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities11, the question during the 2016 election is not merely about whether liberal or conservative policies are most apt to address discrimination. The question also concerns whether liberal or conservative narratives adequately communicate the history of American racial inequality. That narrative is what informs public opinion and drives electoral outcomes. Accurately communicating history matters for reasons beyond principle – it matters for the economic advancement of disempowered communities.

When Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton discusses black unemployment and poverty[9][10], we cannot permit them to omit the historical and political legacies festering in the present day. Solving problems requires us to both recognize the root of our challenges and afford solutions a sense of urgency. Who is better suited to meet those challenges head on? This is the most important discussion of the election.



  [1] A. Flynn et al., “Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy,” Roosevelt Inst., New York, NY, Rep. June 2016.

  [2] “The Wage Gap, by Gender and Race,” [Online] Available: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0882775.html [Accessed: 24-July-2016].

  [3] “The Color of Leadership: Barriers, Bias, and Race,” [Online] Available: http://www.aauw.org/2016/04/19/color-of-leadership/ [Accessed: 25-July 2016].

  [4] P. Sharkey. Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013.

  [5] J. Greer, “Assets and Opportunity Scorecard,” Corporation for Enterprise Development, Washington, DC, Rep. 2016.

  [6] “The Condition of Education 2012,” 2012. [Online]. Available: https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2012045 [Accessed 25-July 2016].

  [7] T. Vega. “Why the Racial Wealth Gap Won’t Go Away,” 2016. [Online]. Available: http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/25/news/economy/racial-wealth-gap/ [Accessed: 24-July 2016].

  [8] E. Thorbecke and C. Charumilind, “Economic Inequality and Its Socioeconomic Impact,” Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Rep. 2002.

  [9] D. Trump, “Republican National Convention speech,” Cleveland, OH, 2016.

  [10] “Clinton: Ending Racial Inequality will be ‘mission’ of Presidency,” 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/16/politics/hillary-clinton-civil-rights-groups-leaders-harlem/ [Accessed: 25-July 2016].

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