The Trouble with Disparity

Michaels, Walter Benn; Reed,Adolph Jr.
Date Written:  2020-09-10
Publisher:  Nonsite
Year Published:  2020
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX24420

Racism is real and antiracism is both admirable and necessary, but extant racism isn’t what principally produces our inequality and antiracism won’t eliminate it. And because racism is not the principal source of inequality today, antiracism functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it.



What makes racism look like the problem? The very real racial disparities visible in American life. And what makes antiracism look like the solution? Two plausible but false beliefs: that racial disparities can in fact be eliminated by antiracism and that, if they could be, their elimination would make the U.S. a more equal society. The racial wealth gap, because it is so striking and commonly invoked, is a very good, not to say perfect, illustration of how, in our view, both the problem and solution are wrongly conceived.

It is well known by now that whites have more net wealth than blacks at every income level, and the overall racial difference in wealth is massive. Why can’t antiracism solve this problem? Because, as Robert Manduca has shown, the fact that blacks were overrepresented among the poor at the beginning of a period in which “low income workers of all races” have been hurt by the changes in American economic life has meant that they have “borne the brunt” of those changes.1 The lack of progress in overcoming the white/black wealth gap has been a function of the increase in the rich/poor wealth gap.

In fact, if you look at how white and black wealth are distributed in the U.S., you see right away that the very idea of racial wealth is an empty one. The top 10 percent of white people have 75 percent of white wealth; the top 20 percent have virtually all of it. And the same is true for black wealth. The top 10 percent of black households hold 75 percent of black wealth.


It’s the fixation on disproportionality that tells us the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there more black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ billionaires. And the fact that antiracism and antidiscrimination of all kinds would validate rather than undermine the stratification of wealth in American society is completely visible to those who currently possess that wealth—all the rich people eager to embark on a course of moral purification (antiracist training) but with no interest whatsoever in a politics (social-democratic redistribution) that would alter the material conditions that make them rich.

By contrast, the strain in black politics that converged around what Smith calls the social- (rather than racial-)democratic ideal proceeded from the understanding that, because most black Americans are in the working class—and disproportionately so, partly because of the same effects of past and current racism we allude to above—black people would also benefit disproportionately from redistributive agendas that expand social wage policies and enhance the living standards and security of working people universally. The tension between those two ideals of social justice, as Smith indicates, was, and is, a tension arising from differences in perception and values rooted in different class positions.
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