Racial wealth gaps are yet another thing the US and UK have in common


It’s an old adage that Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language.

But they are united by racial wealth gaps that formed at a similar time for related reasons. Black Britons of the ‘Windrush Generation’, who arrived in Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973, and Black Americas of the Great Migration of the 1940s-1970s encountered similar disadvantages that recurred over the 50 last years.

Looking at household assets today, black Britons of Caribbean descent have 20p to £1 compared to white Britons. Black Britons of African descent – more recent arrivals in Britain – have only 10 pence on £1 compared to white Britons.

In the United States, black Americans have assets of about 15 to 20 cents on $1 compared to whites.

This is largely the result of policymakers in both countries putting up barriers to black advancement as they instituted policies to grow the middle class.

In my opinion, as a historian of slavery, capitalism and African-American inequality, it is not just the shadow of slavery, which Britain abolished in its western colonies in 1833 and that the United States ended in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

As black members of the British Commonwealth settled in Britain from 1948 and African Americans moved from the south to the north and west, they encountered new obstacles.

The long struggle for equal employment opportunity has had a lasting effect on the ability to accumulate wealth and pass it on to subsequent generations.

The British Illusion of Opportunity

The moment black opportunity opened up in Britain was on June 22, 1948, when the British ship Empire Windrush docked on the River Thames, disembarking 802 Caribbean passengers in England.

They led the first sustained black migration, the mainly black and Asian Windrush generation, who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1973.

British employers wanted their labor amid a shortage after World War II.

About a third of Windrush’s passengers were veterans of British forces who served in World War II and recruited by employers for skilled jobs.

Caribbean women, for example, became vital to the UK’s new National Health Service as nurses, cooks and cleaners, many caring for patients by night and families by day.

The National Windrush Monument, created by Jamaican artist Basil Watson, is unveiled at Waterloo Station in London on June 22, 2022.
John Sibley/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

But, as British journalist Afua Hirsch argues, they face persistent discrimination in housing and employment. Employers wanted them as workers, not neighbours, and they faced hostility from those determined to “keep England white”.

When a Bristol bus company refused to employ black conductors and drivers, black workers counter-organised, successfully organizing a boycott of Bristol buses against employment discrimination.

Such action led to the 1964 Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, which helped catalyze Britain’s Race Relations Act 1965 prohibiting public discrimination and promoting hatred based on “colour, race or ethnic or national origins” a crime.

Meanwhile, civil rights leaders such as Olive Morris fought for economic inclusion through organizations such as the Black Workers Movement. These efforts helped include black workers in unionized industry and led to wage gains.

The American Lure of Opportunity

As the Windrush generation took shape, African Americans also moved north and west in search of opportunity. Journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues that “the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war and genocide in other parts of the world”.

In the three decades since the Great Depression, the American wage structure has become more equal than at any time before or since, a process that economic historians call “The Great Compression.” Between 1940 and 1960, the distance between employees in the top 10% and the bottom 90% was reduced by a third.

A black boy wearing a shirt and tie stands near a black woman in front of a car with their belongings tied to the top.car
An African-American family moving from Florida during the Great Depression.
MPI/Getty Images

But policies giving white Americans a boost up the ladder have tended to cripple African Americans.

Social Security initially excluded most black workers. Union wages rose, but African Americans were underrepresented in union jobs.

Home loan guarantees went to white families and specifically excluded black-occupied properties in many US cities.

Redlining was the practice of withholding loan guarantees from properties occupied by black and other minority residents. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of divestment and declining values.

Meanwhile, post-war programs aimed at improving social mobility, such as the Military Readjustment Act of 1944, or GI Bill, largely benefited white veterans by expanding the middle class with employment assistance. , college and home loan.

Historian Matthew F. Delmont argues that “by channeling resources to white veterans and denying loans to black veterans, the GI Bill intensified the racial wealth gap and shared the terrain of opportunity in America during decades after the war.

In the 1960s, legal barriers gave way to what African-American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “predatory inclusion” in property, finances, and education.

As black Americans began to narrow a persistent wealth gap, the economy was paying diminishing returns to workers.

The wealth-to-income ratio rose in the United States and the United Kingdom after 1973, and black Americans who had recently moved up one or two rungs on the ladder began to fall behind whites.

Britain’s failed promise

By the 1970s, multicultural Britain had taken shape. As British sociologist Paul Gilroy argues, black Britain, including people of African and South Asian descent, had become a complex of classes and cultures as diverse as the imperial geography of England which once included colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

But diversity did not mean inclusion. Just as working-class black Britons were making gains in unionized industry, this rung of the ladder cracked.

From the late 1970s, factories closed or relocated, and pathways to the middle class shrank as the United Kingdom and the United States pursued a strategy of increased privatization and reduced costs. public spending on social services.

Union strength declined in all sectors and workers’ wages stagnated. Many black Britons have been trapped in segregated neighborhoods and failed to benefit from rising house values. Today, 2 in 3 white British families own a home, compared to 2 in 5 black British families of West Indian descent and 1 in 5 black British families of African descent.

In the 2000s, those who lacked capital or technological skills in Britain struggled to climb the economic ladder. Income inequality soared between 1979 and the early 2000s, reaching levels not seen since before World War II.

The American Reinvention of Inequality

Meanwhile, in the United States, legal barriers have come down as the economy has changed in ways that have disadvantaged black workers in new ways. In 1979, the average black worker earned 82 cents on the dollar compared to their white counterparts. In 2000, the pay gap widened to 77 cents on the dollar.

The Great Recession of 2008 destroyed half of black wealth, and in 2015 an estimated 1.5 million black American men were out of the economy, died prematurely, incarcerated or excluded from the workforce – 8.2% of African American men of working age compared to 1.6% of white men of the same age.

Despite wealth gains since 2016, black wealth was more vulnerable and harder to accumulate.

The pay gap remains significant today.

Black women workers in the United States earn 79 cents on the dollar compared to white women, and black men earn 87% of what white men earn.

Discrimination across the Atlantic

In the UK, just before the pandemic, black Britons of African and Caribbean descent earned 85% and 87% of the wages of white Britons, respectively.

According to a study by two leading UK inequality think tanks, British women of color endure “intersecting structural barriers and discrimination they face at every stage of their career, from school to university. through employment.

Britain’s wealth is largely white, resulting from “the history of economic relations between Britain and the rest of the world, particularly Africa, the Caribbean and Asia”, according to the Runnymede Trust, a group reflection on inequalities.

Over the past 80 years, the belly of Britain and America is that both countries have reinvented racial economic disadvantage.

Instead of making their economies fundamentally equitable, racial exclusions gave way to inclusion that came with a surcharge on opportunity while failing to right past wrongs.

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