“The two dominant non-European populations, Indigenous and Africans, were subjected to various coercive forms of labor that would be distinct from the experience of indentured European servants,” said Muhammad, who is also the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “And as such, racism became an economic imperative to harness land and labor for the purpose of wealth creation, and that did not change in any substantial way until really about the 1960s.”
In fact the founders discovered that the issues of Black slavery and equality were so divisive that they opted to kick the can down the road, hoping some future generation would prove wiser or better.
With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans finally gained full citizenship. Many believed that would end the era of Black inequality, but it did not, said Muhammad, because that thinking failed to account for how deeply systemic the problem had become.
Such misconceptions have tended to make it difficult to gain widespread public support for the implementation of policies to close the disparities between Blacks and whites. That’s why it’s important to institutionalize anti-racist practices and policies in civil society and government, said Muhammad, as well to better enforce anti-discrimination laws and investment in schools in low-income neighborhoods. But he also believes a “massive commitment to anti-bias education” starting in kindergarten is necessary.
“If we want to undo the cultural infrastructure that is hand in glove with the economic and political racism and domination of people, we have to start very young,” said Muhammad. “Anti-bias education is a social vaccine to vaccinate our children against the disease of racism. Imagine what the world would look like in a generation.”
A legacy that benefits some and hurts others
Over the past decades, many scholars have examined the Black-white gap in household wealth. But it was in 1995 that sociologists Thomas Shapiro and Melvin Oliver put wealth inequality on the map with their groundbreaking book, “Black Wealth, White Wealth.” Their research analyzed the role of wealth, or accumulated assets, rather than that of income in the persistent racial divide.