Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 20-27, 1999Volume 28, Number 5

Since the days of slavery, African Americans have been "systematically prevented from accumulating property," says sociologist Dalton Conley. His new book "Being Black, Living in the Red" explores how the opportunities of blacks have been undermined by their inability to access credit and buy homes, among other issues.

Blacks undermined by lack of wealth, sociologist argues

Accumulated wealth is the overlooked, but single most powerful derminant of class-based racial inequality in America, contends Yale professor Dalton Conley in his new book "Being Black, Living in the Red."

Although occupation, income and education are generally deemed the defining rungs for climbing the socioeconomic ladder, Conley argues that wealth -- or assets handed down from one generation to another -- is the ultimate source of class differentiation in U.S. society.

In fact, he says, lack of wealth has, more than any other factor, undermined opportunities for African Americans in this nation.

"From the initial wresting of soon-to-be slaves from their families and possessions along the western coast of Africa, to the failed promise of land redistribution after Emancipation, to the dynamics of residential segregation and differential credit access that continue relatively unabated today, African Americans have been systematically prevented from accumulating property," says Conley, who is assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Yale.

After taking the reader through the historical and statistical evidence to support his theory, "Being Black, Living in the Red" presents some fresh -- although admittedly imperfect -- solutions to the multifaceted problem.

First and foremost, Conley suggests affirmative action approaches that are based on total parental asset levels rather than race or yearly income alone. This, he says, would result in an affirmative action policy that aids the most disadvantaged minorities while remaining ostensibly color-blind and thus politically more appealing. He also recommends loosening asset restrictions on welfare recipients in order to encourage savings as a path out of welfare dependency.

On the issue of home ownership, which comprises the greatest part of the assets of most American families, Conley evokes a policy suggested by colleagues in the field -- namely government-sponsored "social insurance." Such insurance would protect property owners from the decline in home values that accompanies "white flight" from integrating neighborhoods, notes Conley, who also calls for a massive initiative to promote home ownership in poor urban communities.

To foster the creation of capital by African Americans, Conley suggests that the government might provide reparations, like those Germany made to Holocaust survivors. Although he concedes that this solution is likely to be politically unpalatable, he argues that such a model would be more effective than "community development" programs, such as "enterprise" or "empowerment" zones, which are intended more to create jobs than to provide the profit-driven incentive to accumulate capital.

"Being Black, Living in the Red" is based on Conley's dissertation, which was named best graduate thesis for 1996 by the American Sociological Association. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Conley's next book will be published in 2000. Titled "Honky," the work is Conley's personal account of growing up white in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican housing project. Both books are published by the University of California Press.

-- By Dorie Baker


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