Recognizing our past
To this point, I have discussed wealth’s proﬁciency in leveraging future opportunities. To understand the current disparities in household wealth, we must look back as well. Wealth’s durability and transferability across generations means that its current
disposition reﬂects past circumstances and opportunities. Whatever our current wealth status, most of us can look backward at our family tree and view a progression of improving prospects. In each generation, parents struggled to expand the opportunities of their children. They usually did so. With each generation, then, children attained more education that in turn brought more employment options. Each generation usually earned higher incomes, oﬀering them greater opportunities to save and help their own kids even more generously. In this way, our current wealth is deeply rooted in our individual family histories. However, the current disparities in wealth result from more than the assorted pluck and luck of our ancestors. As we consider the current patterns in household wealth, particularly across racialized groups, we must recall our history of racialized attitudes, policies, and institutions that selectively favored some over others. Although we have rescinded these laws and practices, their consequences remain plainly in view. To understand our nation’s history regarding wealth and race, we must revisit
our foundational document, the U.S. Constitution. This document enshrines two contrary impulses that inform our federal wealth policies. The U.S. Constitution reﬂects a bold experiment in creating a government whose charge is to provide an expansive set of individual rights broadly shared. The document references these rights in the Preamble as it argues that the role of government is “to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” It enumerates the blessings of liberty throughout the original document as well as in the quickly adopted Bill of Rights. While most of these rights are political, some refer to economic rights, including the Fifth Amendment which prohibits the
taking of “property, without due process.” Here, the constitution cements the most important right regarding property, the right of the individual owner to retain their valued item. To oﬀer further protection, the U.S. Constitution forbids the imposition of “direct” taxes on individual property, whether real or personal.1 In this way, the U.S. Constitution enshrined essential rights that encouraged the pursuit and accumulation of private wealth, as well as protected that wealth from taxation. Although the U.S. Constitution enumerated a broad set of individual rights, it
did so for a relatively narrow group of persons, namely White males. The constitutional guarantees against the taking of property without due process and just compensation did not cover the vast tracts of land still possessed by Native Americans in 1790. Over the following century, one tribe after another would lose its traditional land, often without any compensation. As the authors argue in The Color of Wealth, “federal policies toward the American Indian have methodically removed wealth from Native populations” (Lui et al., 2006, p. 36). For persons of African descent, these constitutional guarantees did not enforce their most basic economic right, the right to keep the fruits of one’s labor. Indeed, the property claims of slaveholders trumped this right. According to the constitution, individuals were bound to return to the legal owner any person who had escaped from slavery, even if their local state laws prohibited it. Only a select few received the broad set of rights enshrined in the constitution. Curiously, while the constitution clearly enumerates its protection of speciﬁc
individual rights, its restrictions on who beneﬁts are stated opaquely. Rather than speak of slavery or enslaved persons explicitly, the constitution refers to “persons held to Service or Labor” and “all other persons.” Indeed, the document identiﬁed three key groups: free persons including those temporarily in indentured contracts, “Indians not taxed” or those living on native lands, and “all other persons” which refers to those enslaved. Given the social norms of the time, persons refer to males only. Recognizing these coded words is important, since all subsequent legislation that limits participation by persons of color follows this precedent. Rare is the federal policy that clearly states “for Whites only,” even though many were designed and applied in this manner.