Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: 'Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America' by Dalton Conley

Review by Susan Gardner

Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America 
By Dalton Conley 
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA 
Softcover updated reprint, 217 pages, $24.95 
Tenth anniversary edition
Money quote:
In 1865, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States. This statistic is not surprising; most black Americans had been slaves up to that point. However, by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, black Americans owned a meager 1 percent of total wealth. In other words, almost no progress has been made in terms of property ownership. African Americans may have won "title" to their own bodies and to their labor, but they have gained ownership over little else.



Author: Dean of Social Sciences at New York University, Conley has spent his career focusing on class and intergenerational economic patterns. Other books include Honky, a memoir of growing up white in a predominantly minority neighborhood in the 1970s; The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances; and The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become.
Basic premise: We’re asking the wrong question when we’re limiting inquiries about economic disparities and race to income and earnings only. What matters, says Conley, at least as much as salary is the ability to amass assets across generations. And there is ample evidence that historical and current policies in America penalize minorities in this area in subtle, yet devastating ways. This edition is updated from 10 years ago when it first was released, with a new introduction that looks at what has changed (or, more sadly and accurately, what has not) since initial publication.
Readability/quality: Free of jargon yet grounded in research. Charts and graphs with strong clarifying summaries make this a relatively easy read.
Who should read it: Anyone interested in delving into the policy behind race, class, economics, education and intergenerational inheritance issues.
Bonus quote:
Herein lie the two motivating questions of this study. First, why does this wealth gap exist and persist over and above income differences? Second, does this wealth gap explain racial differences in areas such as education, work, earnings, welfare, and family structure? In short, this book examines where race per se really matters in the post-civil rights era and where race simply acts as a stand-in for that dirty word of American society: class. The answers to these questions have important implications for the debate over affirmative action and for social policy in general.

Accumulating wealth and transmitting it across generations seems like a no-brainer for explaining many disparities in our society, yet most research that looks at why minorities continue to end up at the bottom of the social and economic ladder seem to focus on education, occupation and income in the contemporary generation. Conley makes a very strong case that the roots of many of socio-economic problems experienced by the African American community are based in wealth transmission problems. He also teases out where class and race diverge, and where they overlap as lower-income Americans of every stripe try to catch hold of the American Dream, which for those at the bottom seems to recede more and more each year. Highly recommended as a book to keep on the shelf as permanent reference and ammo against those who would argue that there is something in transmitted black culture--not economics--that creates hurdles for moving into the middle class.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 


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