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The deep-rooted myth of meritocracy is widening the racial wealth gap

A new report examines how government programs to distribute wealth have consistently ignored Black Americans—and how to reverse the effects.

The deep-rooted myth of meritocracy is widening the racial wealth gap
[Source Photo: Massimiliano Marino/iStock]

In 1834, the first-known appearance in a text of the phrase “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” was supposed to be satirical. It was intended as a metaphor for something that was absurdly impossible: In this case, the image of a man trying to haul himself across a river simply by tugging on his bootstraps. Yet, over time, the phrase has come to be the driving force behind the notion that anyone who works hard can become prosperous.

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It may seem like a harmlessly earnest expression that inspires a national work ethic, propelling all who participate toward the American Dream. But, that kind of upward mobility is simply unattainable for the majority—and a new report says the narrative is a key driver of the racial wealth gap.  The bootstraps trope, glamorized historically in the pursuits of heroic robber barons and the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger, has become the basis for a belief in a meritocratic system—even though self-made stories are extremely rare.

“It has become something that really dominates our psyche,” says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which published the report. Coupled with another age-old narrative of anti-Black racism that the report says “undergirds policies that marginalize and disproportionately punish [Black people],” the myth serves to keep government from providing a route to wealth for Black Americans. “The impetus of this paper,” Price says, “was to fight against these tropes, and how they’ve been used against Black people.”

The report argues that while white people have benefitted from government help in the past, Black people have not, and are shut out of wealth-building due to the continuation of the culturally ingrained narrative. It points to such landmark policies as the Homestead Act of 1862, helping white Americans settle the West—not through trailblazing and individualist spirit, but through the U.S. government distributing 270 million acres of (Native American) land to 1.5 million white families. Studies have found that at least 45 million white Americans today still benefit from that act. Similarly, the GI Bill, key to building the white middle class, provided $190 billion in federal loans for nearly 2.4 million veterans returning from World War II; Black vets were largely excluded.

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These biased policies—combined with the fact that “Black people are the only group in this country who started off with zero capital”—have had a cumulative effect in building wealth for white people, who can continue to succeed today, in part, because of that heritage of wealth. Conversely, Black people taking the same, responsible steps cannot excel equally. “Getting married doesn’t lead to financial freedom” for Black Americans, Price says. “Nor does getting an education, nor does buying a home. It just doesn’t lead to the same things.”

A good education, for instance, is not the equalizer we often profess it to be; Black heads of households with a college degree hold $22,000 less wealth than their white counterparts with high school diplomas. Similarly, for Black people, homeownership isn’t the “ticket to full economic freedom” that many think it is. Owners need money to keep maintaining their homes; the report points to a 2019 study that found the median value of Black real estate assets was 60% that of white assets. “It’s been so lopsided,” Price says, “that you can’t just think putting a few million dollars into homeownership is going to suddenly close these gaps that have been in play for 400 years.”

The authors make recommendations of policies that they say are necessary to narrow the severe racial wealth gap—and they say the change must start with reparations, in the form of direct payments to those descended from slaves. Black people, the report notes, owned 0.5% of the U.S.’s total wealth after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863; today, that figure is only slightly more, at 1% to 2%. “You just can’t talk about this issue in any serious way without talking about reparations,” she says.

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While major federal policies are necessary to fully eliminate the gap, the report says progress can start on state and local levels. Price notes that pandemic recovery has shown the ease of rolling out local pilot programs, such as those around guaranteed income, and suggests the same should be done around baby bonds—a policy long favored by Senator Cory Booker that would allow every newborn to receive a deposit at birth that grows in value over time, and matures when the child turns 18. “If we can provide Americans with stimulus checks,” she says, “we can provide every baby in this country with a wealth account.” At the same time, governments should be curbing wealth extraction, such as when California recently abolished $16 billion of criminal justice fees, which disproportionately hurt Black people.

And, though it’s hard to eliminate such an ingrained idea, the report’s authors say we must make progress in removing the bootstraps myth from the American psyche, so that it stops influencing policy decisions. “Billions of dollars are still invested in upholding that narrative,” she says. “These aren’t innocent narratives.”

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