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Originally published February 27, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified February 27, 2013 at 10:16 PM

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Rosa Parks’ statue a sign of progress, problems

The widening black-white wealth gap calls for systemic solutions.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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A statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled Thursday in the U.S. Capitol, then a couple of hours later another study came out exploring the wide wealth gap between white and black Americans.

If Rosa Parks in bronze reminds us how far we have come, it should also inspire us to keep moving because we haven’t arrived at the promised land yet.

The work of Rosa Parks’ generation gave black Americans (and other American minority groups) a handhold on the ladder up, but because most black Americans were making up for the injustices of the past, that hold was less firm than for white Americans. The Great Recession that swept so many Americans of all races off the ladder hit black people especially hard.

People who were new to homeownership, people who didn’t have much money saved, people who were trying to get into college got swept backward. Black people were more likely to be in those categories than were white Americans.

The new report, “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” comes from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. Researchers lead by Tom Shapiro looked at data on the same 1,700 households over 25 years and found that the racial wealth gap nearly tripled.

Gaps persist even when researchers compare people whose behaviors are similar, graduating from college for instance or getting married — both are more economically beneficial to white Americans.

Two-thirds of the difference in wealth accumulation was explained by factors other than choices or behavior. The biggest factors were length of homeownership, household income and unemployment. College education and differences in inheritance made smaller differences.

The gap could be made smaller by changes in public policies and private-sector practices. The gap would decrease if there were less neighborhood segregation, which affects home values and the ability to get loans; less discrimination in the job market and in the workplace; and improved access to high-quality K-12 education, according to the report.

Many of the findings could apply to groups not included in the data, Latinos in particular, but the original data was collected to track black progress post-Civil Rights.

Rosa Parks would have been 100 this month. When she was born there were still many people alive who had been enslaved and who knew the rush of sudden freedom. Equality did not quickly follow.

We know Mrs. Parks because she chose to assert her equality in 1955 when black people in her city, Montgomery, Ala., were required to sit at the back of city buses and to stand if white people wanted their seats. One evening Rosa Parks chose to be arrested rather than surrender her seat to a white man. Her arrest was followed by a black-citizen boycott of the bus system that would last more than a year and lead to the end of Montgomery’s law.

Over the next decade, discriminatory laws fell in community after community, state after state and nationally — brought down by people who were determined to make equality and justice for all a reality.

Each generation we get a little closer and the nature of the work that needs to be done, from ending slavery, to tearing down Jim Crow (the system of legal discrimination common across the South well into the 1960s), and now addressing policies and practices that increase inequality.

In announcing the report, the researchers said that stifling the human potential of any group hurts economic growth for the country as a whole.

It’s also, as that statue of Rosa Parks reminds us, about justice and equality.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com Twitter @jerrylarge

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