Morgan Freeman Forgets His Ancestors Were Slaves
Morgan Freeman’s comments on income inequality and race indicate that his personal success has made him highly disillusioned with the economic reality faced by many minorities in America. During a recent interview, CNN host Don Lemon asked Freeman if he felt that “race plays a part in wealth distribution,” Freeman responded: “No. No, I don’t. You and I, we’re proof. Why would race have anything to do with it? Put your mind to what you want to do and go for that. It’s kind of like religion to me, it’s a good excuse for not getting there.” The two continued their conversation and insinuated that discussions about race in the daily news cycle make race a bigger issue than it really is.
There are countless studies that illustrate just how significant the racial income and wealth gaps are. In a policy brief published by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, it is pointed out that when the same households had their economic indicators tracked over the course of 25 years, the total wealth gap between white and African American families tripled from $85,000 in 1948 to $236,500 in 2009. The study also found that the major contributing factors to this difference were years of home ownership, household income, unemployment, college education, and preexisting wealth, such as inheritance and financial supports by families and friends. Similarly, an analysis of data from the 2010 U.S. Census showed that although whites only make up 64 percent of the population, they own more than 88 percent of the country’s wealth.
Now, to address Freeman’s insinuation that these ever increasing disparities are due to black people not being willing to work hard enough to achieve economic parity with whites, we must acknowledge that Freeman failed to take into account that the racial wealth gap is deeply rooted in historical legacy and continues to be perpetuated by government policies and discriminatory practices. While some may feel that continuing to discuss the current effect of slavery on the black population is beating a dead horse, slavery’s impact on wealth distribution cannot be underestimated. Slavery was an institutionalized form of racism that prevented blacks from being compensated appropriately for their labor and made it impossible for them to improve the economic future of their families through wealth accumulation for generations. Simultaneously, white families were able to accumulate wealth at a much faster rate because of labor exploitation than what they would have been able to accumulate if forced to rely on their own individual efforts. James Marketti, a historical economist, estimates the dollar value of black slave labor from 1790 to 1860 to be no less than $1trillion; some estimates even place this figure as high as $59 trillion. When one takes into account that not only did blacks not benefit from being able to amass and pass down this wealth but that whites were able to, the existence of the racial wealth gap can not be seen as merely a difference in expended effort but rather a continued legacy of exploitation.
There are statistics related to this factor that show just how wrong Morgan Freeman and Don Lemon are in their assumption that race does not have anything to do with the wealth gap. Even after slavery was abolished, residential segregation has continued to disproportionately affect black wealth accumulation through. When this is coupled with the fact that, according to a Brookings Institute study, homes owned by black families are valued at 18 percent less than homes owned by white families, one begins to see just how different it is for a black family to try to amass the same amount of wealth as a white family. The study also found that home values were less for black families even in wealthy minority neighborhoods; even more shocking was the finding that the market penalizes integration due to the fact that, even when researchers control for variables such as age, social class, household structure, and geograph, neighborhoods with higher percentages of blacks have lower home values. A 2007 study conducted by George Washington University found that it was not just blacks choosing to live in majority black neighborhoods that perpetuates this type of segregation and economic disparity. Whites who were surveyed admitted that they would be unlikely to purchase a home that met all of their requirements in terms of price, number of bedrooms, etc., if there was a significant number of black families living in the neighborhood. This means that both races are responsible, and blacks on their own can not make enough right choices to negate this factor of wealth inequality.
Another contributing factor to the wealth gap is the difference in earnings between black and white workers. When comparing earnings between black and white workers, one must consider that discrimination plays a major role in being hired, trained, and promoted. An illustration of this point is The Center for Global Policy Solutions finding that African American families earn barely more than half ($33,321) of what white families earn ($57,009). Even if Morgan Freeman and Don Lemon want to ignore this contributing factor of the racial wealth gap, one that cannot be ignored is the way tax structures disproportionately affect African Americans. The differences in the way wages, stock dividends, and property are taxed have historically perpetuated racial differences in the rate at which wealth is accumulated.
Freeman and Lemon clearly need a history lesson about the amount of wealth whites have accumulated through slavery. They also need to brush up on existing laws and policies that perpetuate institutionalized and structural racism that negatively effects large numbers of the black population. A handful of black people being able to accumulate wealth in no way indicates that the masses of black people who do not are somehow lazy. The fact that the racial wealth gap has continued to widen even as more black people graduate from college, pursue professional careers, and own homes means that something is profoundly wrong with the functioning of the American economy. When a system is structured in a way that gives one racial group generations worth of advantages over another, no person in their right mind can truly believe that a level playing field exists.