Shackled at the Starting Line: The Racial Wealth Gap from the Asian Perspective

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Last year marked the 4th century since 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States. Slavery formally ended in 1865, and the age of Jim Crow ended almost 100 years later with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As of July 2, 2020, it has only been 56 years since racial equality was an idea that was truly introduced into American society by law. It took hundreds of years before Black people were even recognized as people; it’ll take even more time before they can catch up to other races on an economic basis.


In the U.S., we’re prone to thinking that equal treatment under the law translates into equal opportunity. But Martin Luther King said it best: “It is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.” 


That’s why those who are Black fall under the national average in median weekly salaries of all full-time wage-earners. Even worse, while earning wealth is hard, building wealth is even harder; equal access to housing for all races was only legitimized in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, meaning that their ability to increase capital through property has only been around for 50 years. As a result, the net worth of the average White family is almost ten times greater than the average Black household ($171,000 compared to $17,150). Even among the wealthiest Black people, there’s no way out; analysis on a study by the Census Bureau shows that only 17% of Black men who grow up rich actually stay wealthy, while 41% fall into the lower-middle-class to poor category once growing up. In contrast, almost 40% of their White counterparts remain rich as adults.


But what does this have to do with the AAPI community? We know that all minority communities haven’t been treated fairly in the U.S., especially Asian-Americans. Whether it was the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Internment of Japanese Americans during WW2, the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind ruling in 1923, or the constant “model minority” stereotyping (which you can read about in Abigail Hu’s article here), AAPI people have faced their fair share of discrimination in America. 


So it’s understandable that some may ask the question: If all minorities are discriminated against, why should Asians have to do more in the fight against economic inequality?


Remember this: the first waves of Asians immigrating to the U.S. started in the mid-1800s. Not only was that more than 200 years after 1619, but Asians never suffered a reality where they were treated like property. Though we’ve definitely experienced discrimination, it hasn’t been anything close to systemic.


There’s an important income gap that needs to be recognized, which is the one between Asians and everyone else. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2017 that both Asian women and men earn well above the average American’s salary, even outpacing their White counterparts. This can easily be explained by better access to education, as Asians are the only racial group where more than half of its population seeks higher education, totaling to a rate of almost 60% attending college (the same study showed only 37% among Black Americans). 


It is becoming increasingly evident that, while there is still a sizable percentage of low-income Asians, many of us can come from a place of privilege when approaching the racial wealth gap. Gaining a better understanding of wealth inequality is what will help us realize how it perpetuates the impacts of historical redlining, over-policing of neighborhoods, healthcare discrimination, lessened job opportunities, and so many more issues that plague the Black community every day.


As Tou Thau stood with his back turned as Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May, we witnessed a microcosm of the involvement (or lack thereof) of the AAPI community when it comes to Black suffering. A person can only look away from another, as Thau did, when they’re in a place of privilege. 


We should recognize that. Let’s stop turning our backs.</