More than one pandemic

It’s Time to Pay Attention to How the Wealth Gap in the US Manifests

The wealth gap in the US is getting bigger. So why, when it is more crucial than ever, is it still so hard to talk about the interlacing of class and race?

The spread of the COVID-19 has seemingly rattled every societal foundation in some way: workers furloughed or laid off, small businesses shut down, students forced to contemplate the uncertainty of their future.

The realization that this little-understood virus could infect people indiscriminately has prompted many public figures, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a bathtub-soaking Madonna, to label the coronavirus the “great equalizer.” But while tempting, to call the pandemic an equalizer would be wrong.

The racial wealth gap and today's American dream illusion

The wealth gap in the US was on a grim trajectory long before COVID-19. Between America’s richest and poorer families, it more than doubled in recent years, and the poorest half of Americans are literally getting crushed by the weight of rising inequalities.

Still, the American Dream has been seducing people for centuries: work hard, they say, and you'll get your share of fulfillment and success. But its core tenet, equality, is tested time and again—especially during national crises.

“While tempting, to call the pandemic an equalizer would be wrong.”

Inequality discourse very often feels like a one-sided conversation, with those most affected doing the bulk of the communicating and those in power blissfully looking away. Not only do most Americans underestimate how wide the different kinds of wealth gaps are, most wealthier individuals don’t care much about inequality anyway. But over the last six weeks, over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. We have seen the pandemic's both calamitous and exploitative impact on the food and hospitality industries (which are staffed overwhelmingly by people of color). And it’s hard to ignore the roiling anger directed at institutions, at policy-makers, at big businesses.

Those who are used to dealing with disparity have only seen their precarity put in sharper relief because of the pandemic. But for those who are privileged, it’s a different story.

To the privileged, a little hardship can feel like equality, like getting a taste of what it’s like to live on the other side of the tracks. When something like a pandemic hits, then, it is easier to focus on platitudes (we’re all in this together), rather than acknowledge the depths of pre-existing societal rifts.

Even those who nuance their claims of sameness with marginalized groups stop just short of addressing the core of the matter, beyond the topic of class. While the pandemic may have underlined, for whiter and/or wealthier individuals, how muchsocioeconomic equality is an illusion created by the myth of opportunism, for people of color, the illusion was never there: to talk about class in America is to talk about race. Just ask the Black teenager recently arrested and punched in the head by NYPD. The alleged crime? Violating social distancing.

“Inequality discourse very often feels like a one-sided conversation, with those most affected doing the bulk of the communicating and those in power blissfully looking away.”

In fact, there are numerous reports of NYPD officers violently enforcing social distancing within certain New York neighborhoods—those that are historically poorer, and, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly Black and brown. In other, higher-income neighborhoods, however, cops have been seen literally handing masks out to those wealthier (and, typically, whiter) inhabitants breaking the same rules. This isn’t only about class.

Still, the wealth gap tells a powerful story. A symptom of America's disregard for its racial history and most vulnerable people, it’s time to start paying attention to the ways in which it manifests.

Race and class: a cruel intertwinement

A 2019 study by the Brookings Institution determined that unlike their white peers, Black children have less upward economic mobility, and are less likely to stay wealthy, even if their parents are.

Christina Brown, a Black woman and grad student from Long Beach currently studying International Relations & Diplomacy in Paris, knows firsthand what it’s like to involuntarily bear the brunt of socioeconomic inequality. “I’ve been affected by instability and precariousness since childhood,” she tells Supermaker in a written interview. “I grew up having to manage instability and uncertainty.”

Like many young Americans, she inherited instability from her parents, who were financially affected by the recession. “Marginalized groups are most definitely at risk [now],” she continues. “The rich, wealthy class has access to testing, to treatment, to supplies, to masks. Everyone else is scrambling for resources, afraid to miss work if they’re sick because they need money.”

"The wealth gap tells a powerful story. A symptom of America's disregard for its racial history and most vulnerable people, it’s time to start paying attention to the ways in which it manifests."

Yet just a few weeks ago in April, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, during a White House press conference, advised vulnerable communities to “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs” as protective measures against the coronavirus, as if marginalized individuals being sicker than their white counterparts lies not in the societal structures that have disfavored them for centuries, but in the health choices they have made thus far. It's a familiar pattern, witnessed notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Flint water crisis. Both were crises in which Black Americans were overwhelmingly affected. Both, also, were crises which engendered victim-blaming and condescension from officials, which would surely have unfolded differently had those most afflicted not been predominantly Black.

The belief that marginalized communities are responsible for their own financial precarity is built on this same erroneous perspective: it is a personal choice problem, not a societal one. It’s unsurprising, then, that so many media outlets are telling us how to budget right now.

Attempts to make financial matters accessible aren’t inherently bad, but “we should try not to tell people who are disproportionately financially challenged to budget their money better,” says Gianni LaTange, a financial strategy coach, educator, and Black woman. Further acknowledging that, in some cases, members of vulnerable groups don’t even have access to resources like the internet, she says that focusing on financial advice, especially right now, can be tone-deaf.

On obsolete systems and promising ones

For many people of color, surviving a pandemic in a country that has historically failed them comes down to informing oneself in order to protect oneself, something LaTange actively endorses. And while acknowledging that she works within capitalism, LaTange asserts that she does so in order to gain enough knowledge about the systems at play so that she can, eventually and in calculated ways, capsize them, and then help others do the same. “Part of that [work] is understanding [capitalism] deeply, having fluent literacy, and disseminating that info so that people who are affected by that system decide how they want to interact with it. We need to create a new system altogether.”

Gary Wood Jr., a mentor for students and recent grads, is similarly focused on helping others find and keep their footing in these unpredictable times—especially those about to enter the workforce. “With many people being laid off due to COVID-19, it shows how students should be looking into careers in which you can remotely work from home,” he tells Supermaker. But even those who already have jobs could learn something from this pandemic. He admits that even he has changed his long-term career outlook, adding that “this pandemic proves that everyone needs to have multiple sources of income.”

“To talk about class in America is to talk about race.”

Wood Jr. is not the only one thinking about the impending aftermath. Columns and essays have become reflective in the last couple of weeks, as everyone ponders what life will look like when the coronavirus threat abates. Virtually every major social upheaval has brought with it an opportunity for large-scale introspection, and while the ramifications of the pandemic might be even more detrimental than we can predict, some see this as an opportunity to take obsolete institutions to task, and foster slow-moving (but encouraging) ideological shake-ups: efforts towards accessibility. Constructive conversations about universal healthcare. Political strides that benefit all, not some. Compassion for debt-riddled students. The upending of the housing market.

But whether this dialogue continues to occur in the long run, and whether it is transformative at a large scale depends, in part, on our willingness to have honest conversations about privilege and discrimination. One thing, however, is for sure: the systemic flaws the coronavirus has exposed cannot be collectively unseen. Marginalized folk now have an indication of how flexible policies are capable of being, for big businesses and workplaces, for example. This can only bolster the fervor with which social justice is advocated for in the coming years.

When asked if anything good can come out of such anguished times, LaTange is of a similar mindset. “I hope so. I can’t say with confidence what is happening in all these individual communities, but what I hope is that there will be a strengthening of networks and support systems, of people being unafraid to ask for help and lean on each other.”

Aïcha Martine Thiam is a trilingual writer, musician, artist. Her collection AT SEA was shortlisted for the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Prize. Some words found/forthcoming in: Berfrois, Déraciné, The Rumpus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Boston Accent Lit.

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