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Sunday, November 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Jerry Large / Times staff columnist
Race wealth disparity: 10 to 25 cents on dollar


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Framing gave the Republicans an edge in our latest presidential election. It is framing that gives meaning to data and feelings and gives people something to hold on to. If you want to be successful in debating public issues, you'd better be able to bring people for a look at the world through your window.

Thomas Shapiro talked about framing the other night. He is a social scientist, a professor at Brandeis University and an author.

He was one of several prominent thinkers who spoke last week to members of The Trotter Group, an association of African-American columnists from around the country who get together once a year for several days of seminars about social issues and the craft of journalism.

Thirty-one journalists met this year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for the conference.

The group is all about supporting each other in giving to readers and viewers perspectives that are shaped by our experiences as African Americans. Good journalism has to offer people more than one view of the world if it is to help them understand that world.

We all try to make sense of the world using whatever tools we have, the things we've learned not just in school, but from living life and exploring.

Being black isn't all we bring to our jobs, of course, and everyone can bring a special voice to the table if they are willing to put what they know on the table regardless. Shapiro was talking about how we understand financial disparities, particularly that persistent gap between white and black Americans.

Over the years the gap changes. Black folks who used to make on average 59 cents for every dollar an average white person made, might make 62 cents now. Our discussion of economic disparity has been framed with those numbers as a story about income disparity.

For a few years now there has been more talk about the wealth disparity, a truer reflection of people's social status. Wealth, Shapiro says, is how that discussion needs to be carried forward. Wealth needs to be at the top of the civil-rights agenda.

He's not saying everybody ought to strive to be rich, but wealth is what determines so much about life that it can't be underplayed. It determines whether a family can endure hard times, where kids go to school, which neighborhood people can live in and so much more.
 
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A few years ago, Shapiro co-wrote a book titled "Black Wealth/White Wealth," which was chock full of facts about wealth in America. This year he is back with a new book, "The Hidden Cost of being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality."

The new book is a more personal look at the problem based on extensive interviews with black and white Americans. I picked up a copy from Shapiro, and I'll let you know what I think once I've read it.

But I do know that Shapiro is correct about the importance of wealth in shaping the fortunes of families and communities.

Shapiro said the average black family has 10 cents for each dollar the average white family has in wealth, about $8,000 to $80,000.

Black people have made tremendous strides in my lifetime in education and jobs, but the wealth gap persists.

The wealth gap is not just about what someone does today, it is rooted in the past, in government programs that aided white families but not black ones, in all forms of discrimination that prevented black families from accumulating the wealth that would help the next generation do better.

And not all of those barriers have disappeared.

Shapiro talked about home buying. Home equity is where most Americans have most of their wealth, but black people have a harder time acquiring homes, being turned down for home loans 60 percent more often than white borrowers with nearly identical qualifying information.

If you compare black middle-class people to white people whose achievements are equal, you still have a wealth gap in which the black family has 25 cents in wealth for the white family's dollar.

There is a lot more to be said about economic disparity, but it is just one of many issues that progressive people need to frame in ways that will make them comprehensible to the broader society.

That is the sort of thing The Trotter Group is about, and people like Shapiro, who think outside the box.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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