Race to the Bottom: How the recession hurled African Americans backward in time
Back in the 1940s, when there was no pretense of equality among the races and, instead, a benign acceptance—if not, among some, a certainty—that inequality was in fact the way things should be, my mother, then a college student, journeyed 200 miles from her family’s home in north Georgia, through the slash pines and wiregrass, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in a settlement called Keysville. It was in the cotton country south of Augusta, amid the gallberries and turpentine camps, and she stood in her rayon pleated suit and her one good pair of nylons before a room full of sharecropper children packed together from first grade to eighth. She stayed with a local family in the best room they could muster for the new teacher, bedbugs notwithstanding, and got paid $47 per month, as she recalled it, which, multiplied by the six or seven months the children would attend classes in a world dictated by the rhythms of the field, would come to a salary of $329—if she managed to last the school year.
Like other black teachers working in a rigid caste system that treated one group differently from another, she taught in an old building with old desks and hand-me-down books when she could get them, some without covers and with pages torn out, for a fraction of the pay her white counterparts were getting. In the early ’40s in Georgia, white teachers made an average salary of $960 per year; black teachers made an average of $460. In Mississippi, white teachers made $712 annually, while black teachers were paid less than a third of that—$226 per year, hardly more than field hands.
There was nothing my mother could do about it, and she tried not to give it much thought. But that chasm in pay, reported openly and without apology, would have far-reaching effects on disparities in what economists consider perhaps the key barometer of economic well-being: wealth. Wealth, meaning not riches or income, but rather the accumulated net assets passed down through the generations that can be drawn upon in times of crisis. Wealth, unlike income, takes decades to build. The gap in pay going back generations among African Americans meant that even the most promising of black workers, like my mother, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations compared with similar white families.
There came a time when, after the twin pressures of the Great Migration from the rural South to northern cities and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks were able to enter jobs, schools, and neighborhoods previously denied them and began the slow crawl toward closing the gap. By the turn of the twenty-first century, it had narrowed significantly—although white Americans still had a median net worth ten times that of black Americans. Then came the Great Recession, which wiped out the precarious gains that had been made and hurled African Americans back to the lowest point since economists began measuring the wealth gap three decades earlier.