American Money: The Economic Origins of Racism

With bold investments in infrastructure, education, health care, public sector jobs, and anti-discriminatory legislation, we can level the economic playing field through progressive policies that take our nation’s history of racial and economic inequality into account.

Most people assume that racism is as old as humanity itself. Yet racism as we understand it today is a relatively modern ideology that first took shape in the 17th and 18th century as a moral justification for European conquest, particularly the enslavement of African people, which had become a significant source of wealth for Western imperialist nations.

Though slavery had existed for thousands of years in antiquity, American slavery differed in many ways. Roman slaves had the opportunity to earn their way to freedom while American slaves did not. Roman slavery was also not based on race — they commonly fell into slavery as prisoners of war, kidnapped sailors or as slaves bought outside Roman territory.

But what may shock many people is this: before the rise of the plantation economy in the mid-1600s, Blacks in America enjoyed many of the same rights as whites, the two races socializing and working together. Anthony Johnson originally worked as an indentured servant in 1620, but later bought his freedom, going on to acquire 250 acres of land and five indentured servants. In his own lifetime, however, racial castes had already begun to harden, and by the time of his death, his lands were confiscated on the grounds that he (along with African-Americans as a whole) was an “alien.”

Racial inequality, then, has always been defined by economic inequality. As historian Eric Williams succinctly puts it: “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Specifically, throughout American history, racism has always been motivated by and defined as a way for white elites to control an unequal share of property — whether African-Americans could be bought as property, were outright forbidden to own property or were racially targeted for toxic loans when trying to buy property.

The ways in which African-Americans have been economically disenfranchised are too numerous to list here — suffice it to say that generations upon generations of discriminatory hiring practices, unequal access to quality education, housing segregation, voter disenfranchisement and scores of other inequities have helped form the many disparities that still persist today.

It’s true that African-Americans have gained much ground in terms of civil rights. However, African-Americans have made very little economic progress in too many economic areas. Even before the Great Recession spiked unemployment rates, African-Americans were already mired in a jobs crisis of their own. Black unemployment had remained twice the rate of whites for 60 years. At the start of the recession in 2007, an already-wide wealth disparity existed between communities of color and whites, with Black and brown households owning one-fifth of the typical wealth of white households.

These disparities, the result of hundreds of years of systematic disenfranchisement, left African-Americans particularly vulnerable to the mercy of difficult economic winds. In short, it put African-Americans in the worst possible position when the housing market crashed. As of now, already high racial wealth disparities have doubled, with white Americans owning 22 times the wealth of Blacks. As the national unemployment rate dips down to 7.9 percent, Black unemployment still remains shockingly high at 13.8 percent.

Overcoming our current economic disparities will be complex, daunting and difficult. Full economic recovery requires a double-pronged strategy that looks both to the past and to the future. With bold investments in infrastructure, education, health care, public sector jobs and anti-discriminatory legislation, we can level the economic playing field and take our nation’s history of racial and economic inequality into account. On the other hand, we must also look to the future by embracing wealth-building strategies that involve budgeting, savings and frugality. Only by using a combination of both approaches can we finally move into an era of true equality for all.


American Money is a weekly column written by Dedrick Muhammad, the senior director of the NAACP Economic Programs. To learn more about preventing foreclosure and personal finance, check out the NAACP Financial Freedom Center Facebook Page or on Twitter @naacpecon


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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