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It’s harder for African Americans to climb the economic ladder, and to sustain their progress.
There’s little disagreement about the fact that economic inequality is problematic. But arguments persist over its origins, solutions, and which economic gaps are ultimately the most pernicious.
In his new book, Toxic Inequality: How America's Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future, Tom Shapiro, a professor of law and sociology at Brandeis University, lays out how government policy and systemic racism has created vast gaps in wealth between white and black Americans. Shapiro and his colleagues followed 187 families from Boston, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Half of the families were black and half white. They interviewed them in 1998 and then again in 2010, to see what had changed: how were their kids faring, how had they weathered the recession—were they any better off in 2010 than they had been in 1998?
I spoke with Shapiro about his new book, how policy impacts racial wealth, and what he makes of current conversations about race and economic pain.
The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gillian White: I think many people assume that the norm in America is economic mobility. A takeaway that I got from your book is that this is not the norm for everyone, but certainly not for black people. Is that correct?
Tom Shapiro: There's a lot more up and down. What works for me is the metaphor of the ladder: If you go up a rung, it represents economic mobility, how much better you do than your parents did. The rungs of the ladder in the last thirty years have gotten further apart. So it's harder to move from one rung to another. To fall back, the rungs have gotten closer together. It's easier to fall back.