Higher, Not Closer: Black Educational Attainment Still Not Closing Wealth Gap to Whites


Education is — and must continue to be — the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege.

Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education

Education and wealth have a direct correlation. It’s not by coincidence that most rich people are well-educated or that most people living in poverty are deficient in formal education. According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, a professional with a master’s degree, on average, earns double the income of a laborer with a high school diploma. The same professional is also unemployed at half the rate.

Due to this relationship, education is often referred to as “the great equalizer,” the proverbial key to unlocking the coveted American dream. It’s the impetus for the proliferation of mass student loan debt throughout the United States. Yet for Black Americans the return on investment is unpromising.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to education as the great equalizer; however, the phrase was coined by Horace Mann, an American politician and education reformer, in 1848. Mann exclaimed, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” The origin of this phrase is significant as it helps provide a critical historical perspective.

Black Americans were still enslaved in 1848. Like many of this nation’s foundational documents, when Mann referenced education as “a great equalizer of the conditions of men,” he was referring to white men (no different than Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence). Fast forward a hundred and seventy years and the benefits of education, as they pertain to wealth accumulation, remain one-sided.

For white Americans, it’s been a simple equation. More education equals more money. Nationwide, across three major economic indicators of income, wealth, and employment rates, higher education has consistently yielded greater results.

For Black Americans, higher education has provided greater upward mobility relative to other Blacks with less education. However, it’s done little to close the widening wealth gap between Black and white Americans. Wealth is the value of assets including your home, retirement savings and income minus the debt owed against those assets. The Pew Research Center analysis on demographic trends and economic well-being found that the benefits of schooling often flow in unequal measure to Blacks relative to whites. For example, among those with a bachelor’s degree, Blacks earn significantly less than whites ($82,300 for Black householders vs. $106,600 for whites). In fact, the income of Blacks at all levels of educational attainment lags behind that of their white counterparts.

Less income for Blacks means less discretionary income to save or invest, compounded by a white generation of post-baby boomers estimated to inherit over $30 trillion in financial and non-financial assets. Not only do Blacks earn less, their starting line is at a deep deficit.

In fact, white households are about 13 times as wealthy as Black households — a gap that has grown wider since the Great Recession. If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today, per the Institute for Policy Studies.

For Blacks, a more appropriate name for education would be “the great foul ball.” Black Americans face tremendous headwinds attempting to navigate the landscape of a still predominately white male dominated corporate world. Being Black often feels like a strike against you (two strikes if you’re a Black woman). Being underqualified only counts as a final strike, locking you out of the opportunity for advancement. Attaining a bachelor’s degree at least keeps you alive at the plate with two strikes against you.

A common belief within the Black community is that Black folks have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their white counterparts. Statistics give credence to this assertion. Forty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a study showed that race-based hiring discrimination remains pervasive. University of Chicago Economics professor Marianne Bertrand and Sendhill Mullainathan, a professor of Economics at Harvard University, collaborated to conduct a field experiment to measure racial discrimination in the labor market. They sent 5,000 résumés to 1,300 help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. To manipulate perception of race, each résumé was assigned either a very Black-sounding name like Lakisha and Jamal or a very white-sounding name like Emily and Greg. The results show significant discrimination against Black names. White names received 50 percent more callbacks than Black names for interviews. They also found that race affects the benefits of a better résumé. For white names, higher-quality résumés elicited 30 percent more callbacks than lower-quality white résumés, whereas for African-Americans better résumés elicited a far smaller increase over lower-quality Black résumés.

Education can categorically improve the lives of Americans — Black or otherwise. An equalizer it is not. The college matriculation gap between Blacks and whites has narrowed over the years while the wealth gap continues to widen. Education alone cannot overcompensate for the institutionalized racism and discrimination still prevalent throughout this country. As Blacks are becoming more educated, so are whites, but at a much smaller rate. However, any academic improvements by Blacks are being offset by white privilege, resulting in the wealth gap expanding. A 2014 study by Young Invincibles analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census data and found that Blacks with some college experience have the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout — albeit not the same level of work.

While white high school dropouts are going to work at the same rate as Black college students, Black high school dropouts are going to jail. This paradigm underscores the strides we still have to make as a nation and the steep uphill climb for Black Americans.

Effectively closing the wealth gap requires drastic, and more importantly, deliberate change. It necessitates radical policy change at the federal and state level. Policies that aim to restructure affirmative action not replace it. It calls for unpopular policies like offering tax credits to corporations that institution the “Rooney Rule,” a NFL policy that requires every franchise to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching and senior front office positions. We have to reduce the burden of rising cost of education that discourages poor Blacks from pursuing professional degrees.

Many of the forces acting upon the Black community retarding wealth are beyond our control. One key element that remains in our possession is the power to wed. Marriage can be one of the most effective ways to increase wealth. While marriage rates are down in general, the rate for Black Americans is well below average.

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