It’s a fact of life in the United States that race and class are not disparate categories, but correlated ones. A new study based on Census bureau data demonstrates exactly how this correlation plays out when a recession hits. The study, reported on today in the New York Times,
… found that the median wealth of Hispanic households fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, the median wealth of whites fell by just 16 percent over the same period. African Americans saw their wealth drop by 53 percent. Asians also saw a big decline, with household wealth dropping 54 percent.
The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years that the bureau has been collecting the data, according to the report.
Median wealth of whites is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, double the already marked disparities that had prevailed in the decades before the recent recession.
In other words, racial economic inequality was bad before the recession, but now it’s even worse.
And of course, once you throw gender into the mix, the disparities become starker still. The economic recovery, another study recently found, is largely bypassing women. This leaves Hispanic, African American and Asian women particularly vulnerable – as if they weren’t already disadvantaged enough.
These two studies, which demonstrate the correlation between race and class, and between gender and class, also serve as an important reminder about intersectionality. Intersectionality, the idea that multiple forms of group oppression combine to disadvantage people in unique ways, isn’t just a framework for analysis, but a fact of life for all of us. What happens when you add gender identity into this mix of race and gender? What about ability? What about immigrant status?
When you see stats like this, it’s hard not to be deeply cynical about American pretensions to classlessness and equal opportunity for all. The idea that America is a free-for-all where you can be whatever you want as long as you work hard is just that – an idea, and not a terribly accurate one at that. And in the current political climate, where the economic future of the most vulnerable rests in the hands of wealthy and powerful politicians who seem to have little concern for the real-world impact of their posturing and their policies, it’s hard to stop that cynicism from turning to disgust, and anger.