What's Race Got to Do with It?


The Wealth Factor

A sociologist says racial differences in family assets, not culture, explain achievement gaps in school performance.

Over recent years, magazines and newspapers have run a variety of articles that explore why middle-class Black children don't do as well in school as white children from families with similar socio-economic backgrounds. These "achievement gap" articles are based on studies that relate achievement to family incomes. But the findings from these studies, argues one researcher, are highly misleading--because they simply fail to factor in what may be the key determinant to socio-economic status: family wealth.

If Black and white students enjoy the same family income, doesn't that mean they have the same socio-economic status?

No, says Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University who formerly taught at Yale. In his 1999 book, Being Black, Living In the Red (University of California), Conley draws a distinction between income--the money parents earn--and wealth.

A family's wealth includes everything the family owns: a home, other property, stocks, savings, and the like. Wealth provides deeper economic security than income. Young adults from families with assets, for instance, can borrow from their parents for a down payment on a house.

Parents with wealth have a cushion against hard times. Consider the hypothetical case of two families whose chief breadwinners are laid off from identical jobs. The family with assets can weather the storm and pay the mortgage, continuing to build equity.

The family without assets, meanwhile, is devastated. Unable to meet the mortgage, the family might end up in an apartment in a much poorer neighborhood, with poorer schools.

So how does wealth affect student achievement?

Parents who own their home or other forms of wealth are imbued with a sense that "their kind" of people can make it in America. They have a stake in society.

An everyday example: Streets populated by homeowners are better taken care of than streets populated by renters, even if incomes are the same.

Families with assets also know they have resources to tap to buy crucial advantages for their children--like a college education.

Children soak up this feeling at the dinner table and in a thousand other little interactions that have more impact than any amount of preaching.

"Wealth is both the pot at the end of the rainbow and the means for getting there," as Conley puts it.

Do current wealth holdings vary significantly by race?

In 1998, the latest year with decent data, the median net worth for minority families was $16,400--less than one-fifth the median net worth for white families.

Black people in America tend to have a lot less wealth than white people, even when their incomes are equal.

Among families with incomes between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, the median wealth for whites is $81,000, Conley notes. For Blacks, the figure is $40,000.

Why the big difference? One big factor is the historic discrimination Black families have faced. The "redlining" of Black neighborhoods by banks, for instance, has made it almost impossible for many Black families to secure credit for starting businesses or buying homes.

Discriminatory policies like redlining help explain why Black families actually save slightly more of their incomes than whites, yet they own less.

The bottom line: When Black and white children come from families with similar incomes, they may seem to be at the same socio-economic level, but they're not--because their family wealth levels are usually so different.

When wealth and other factors are equal, do Black students do as well as white students?

Generally, yes. Conley, mining data from a large, ongoing study of American families, says that when you take wealth into account, white and Black children are more alike than different. The much-vaunted "achievement gap" largely disappears when you take family wealth into account.

Add to wealth the level of parental education and you have the factors that can predict much of school success.

For example, Black students are much more likely to be expelled from school than white students. But that difference evaporates if you look at students from families with similar wealth and parental education.

Black students are also much less likely to graduate from college than white students, but, again, the driving forces seem to be family wealth and parental education, not race.

In fact, when family wealth levels are similar, Black students are more likely to graduate than whites.

What about reports that attribute achievement gaps to Black student peer pressure against 'acting white'?

"What kids tell you about their motivations is the last, window-dressing link in a long causal chain," says Conley. "I worry little about attitudes that kids espouse to reporters.

"All kids are anti-intellectual," Conley adds. "Nobody wants to be the class nerd. But motivation and achievement would be different if the fruits of the American Dream were equally accessible."

-- Alain Jehlen

For more:

  • For a high school curriculum that explores issues around economic inequality, check Teaching Economics As If People Mattered, by Virginia teacher Tamara Sober Giecek. Contact United for a Fair Economy, 37 Temple Pl., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02111. Fax: 617/423-0191. E-mail: info@ufenet.org.
  • For more on economic inequality, visit the Web at www.ufenet.org.