The Canadian professor and author Thomas Homer-Dixon teaches that a major characteristic of complex systems is path dependence.
“Once a complex system goes down a particular path, it can’t easily jump from one path to another or retrace its steps to try a different path,” Homer-Dixon writes.
The famous Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is a great example of this dynamic.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” so ends the poem.
Frost’s real message, Homer-Dixon argues, is “much more disturbing and, in the end, poignant” than the conclusion many people often come to, that the poem is a demonstration of why it’s important to stand out from the crowd.
More importantly, Frost is “telling us that a choice that appears insignificant can ‘make all the difference,’ and that there may be no going back.”
A series of studies published this year have shown the degree to which racial progress in this country, particularly when evaluated in terms of economic equity, is remarkably path dependent.
America definitely took the road less traveled by after the Civil War, as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out in 1901 in The Negro Landholder of Georgia.
“Thus, the efforts to provide the freedman with land and tools ended, and by 1870 he was left to shift for himself amid new and dangerous social surroundings. No such curious and reckless experiment in emancipation has been made in modern times.”
That Du Bois quotation floats over the introduction section of Wealth of Two Nations: The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap, 1860-2020, published in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The authors — Ellora Derenoncourt, Chi Hyun Kim, Moritz Kuhn and Moritz Schularick — have constructed what they call the “first continuous series on white-to-Black per capita wealth ratios from 1860 to 2020, drawing on historical census data, early state tax records, and historical waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances, among other sources.”
Their data is novel because it shows how the racial wealth gap has evolved since Emancipation when most Blacks went from essentially being wealth (enslaved people were, after all, someone’s property) to being persons entitled under law to own wealth.
There was an initial “rapid convergence,” meaning the wealth gap between Blacks and whites shrunk, in the first 50 years after the Civil War, from the 1860s to the 1910s.
“From a starting point of nearly 60 to 1, the white-to-Black per capita wealth ratio fell to 10 to 1 by 1920, and to 7 to 1 by the 1950s,” the authors show.
This may seem like progress and, to a significant degree, it is. The authors show that “Black wealth growth outpaced that of white Americans’ between 1870 and 1930.”
But that pace is still sluggish and lags “far behind what would be expected had the two groups enjoyed equal conditions for wealth accumulation,” meaning equal opportunity under the law.
“The historical record is rife with instances of expropriation of Black wealth, exclusion of Black Americans from the political process, and legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination in land, labor, and capital markets,” the authors write. “All these factors likely contributed to sluggish convergence over this period.”
Seventy years later, the study shows, the wealth gap is at 7 to 1, essentially stuck at the level it had been in the 1950s.
“In 2019, Black Americans had just 17 cents on average for every white dollar of wealth,” the authors write. “By comparison, the income gap is 50 cents to the dollar. What’s more, the racial wealth gap has shown remarkable stability over the last several decades, with little indication of further convergence.”
This historic, systemic and ongoing theft animates Du Bois’ 1901 statement that “no such curious and reckless experiment in emancipation has been made in modern times.”
The economist Thomas Picketty summarizes the “curious and reckless experiment” in his Brief History of Equality.
“In the last months of the [Civil War], in January 1865, the Northerners promised the emancipated slaves that after the war was won, they would each receive ‘forty acres and a mule.’ The idea was to motivate them to join the fight, to compensate them for decades of unpaid labor, and to permit them to turn toward a future as free workers.
“Had it been adopted, this program would have represented an agrarian redistribution of great scope, at the expense, especially, of major slaveholders,” Picketty writes. “But as soon as the fighting stopped, the promise was forgotten; no law providing for compensation was ever passed, and ‘forty acres and a mule’ became a symbol of Northerners’ deception and hypocrisy.”
Indeed, not only were Blacks not recognized as full citizens until a full century after the Civil War, the slaveholding South was, in effect, rewarded for its treason.
White southerners would come to dominate national politics for much of the 20th century, even influencing Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal — a legislative monument that, while beneficial to Blacks in many respects, largely excluded them from some of its most important provisions like access to affordable housing, a key source of wealth.
A study published in June by the Brookings Institution shows just how dynamic and persistent the racial wealth gap can be for individuals throughout their lives.
In Stuck on the Ladder: Intragenerational Wealth Mobility in the United States, authors Ariel Gelrud Shiro, Christopher Pulliam, John Sabelhaus and Ember Smith show that the racial wealth gap is a tremendous burden to individual Blacks.
“For those with median wealth in their early thirties, Black Americans fall to the 38th wealth percentile in their late fifties while white Americans rise to the 57th wealth percentile in their late fifties,” the authors write.
“We find similar patterns by educational attainment and income level,” they add. “In total, our results point to flexible wealth dynamics early in adulthood that subsequently solidify and reinforce existing race and class inequalities.”
Interestingly, the Wealth of Two Nations authors find that a major factor in the racial wealth gap, particularly since the 1980s, have been the “high wealth-to-income ratios and portfolio differences between Black and white Americans.”
Black households hold nearly two-thirds of their wealth in housing and not much in stock equity, the latter of which “has appreciated by five times as much” since 1950.
“These large price increases in equity markets have led to disproportionate capital gains for the wealthiest Americans, a group that is almost exclusively white,” the authors note.
“Gains for wealthy white households have caused average white wealth to rise relative to average Black wealth, linking the evolution of the racial wealth gap to the overall rise in wealth inequality in the U.S.”
The idea of path dependence naturally invites counterfactual thinking.
What if John Wilkes Booth missed and Abraham Lincoln lived to serve out his second term, possibly extending Reconstruction by some years or at least making reparations for the formerly enslaved a higher priority than returning to the slaveholding South its antebellum glory, a process facilitated by Andrew Johnson (a former southern senator)?
What if Blacks after the Civil War were treated less like a caste and more like white settlers; perhaps, even, denied strict monetary reparations but at least given equal rights to property and equal protection under the law?
What if during the New Deal, Blacks weren’t excluded from the welfare provisions and government housing gifted to whites?
Any of these roads, if taken, may have led to the elimination of the racial wealth gap in our lifetimes (if not to the elimination of wealth inequality in general), or perhaps to a much cooler social and political climate than the currently combustible one we’re living in today.
But like Frost’s traveler, we’ll never know. There is no going back into the past.
We can, however, do better going forward.