My Family’s Long-Gone Texas Land Shows How Black Wealth Is Won and Lost
(Bloomberg) -- For anyone who ever wondered how – and why – America ended up with the racial wealth gap it has, or what it takes to close it, consider a little town in East Texas.
That's where I searched in an effort to unpack the wealth divide. The story stretches back to the late 1800s, involves a plot of land, abandoned children, and taxes. Lots and lots of taxes. It’s my family’s story. Gilmer, Texas is the scene of an inheritance gone awry, and a portrait of how Black wealth is won, and lost.
To be clear, I never gave a lot of thought to my own circumstances as a Black American, or tried to dive into the reasons there is a racial wealth gap, one that stubbornly persists long after slavery. We know that Black people make up around 13% of the population, yet hold just 3.8% of all the wealth. Beyond that, I never deeply investigated the racial wealth gap we have today.
That’s precisely what my co-host, Rebecca Greenfield, and I set out to do in the latest season of The Pay Check.
When we started thinking what The Pay Check, a series that examines the intersection of money and inequality, should cover in its third season, the protests unleashed by George Floyd’s killing were filling streets from Seattle to right outside my living room window in New York City. Add to that a global pandemic that continues to drive racial disparities in health, wealth and death. Even as restaurants, businesses and retailers shuttered at the height of lockdowns, Black Americans were losing their jobs faster than their White peers. Not much has changed: In February 2021, Black unemployment climbed to 9.9%, the highest among all race groups tracked, according to the Labor Department.
Jobs are one metric, but property ownership is also an important means by which Americans accumulate and pass on wealth. The reality is, most people acquire wealth from their parents or grandparents. By one measure, 40% of Americans’ wealth comes from inheritance. Another factoid: Nearly three-quarters of White Americans own their homes, compared to less than half that for Black Americans. So owning property means a lot when it comes to narrowing the wealth gap.
That’s where my family story comes in.
My great great aunt and uncle, Will and Barbara Broadies, came into a chunk of land off a major highway that runs through a little town called Gilmer, in East Texas. It’s about a couple hours drive from Dallas. The land was originally used to farm things like corn, okra, and beans, and was split up between multiple families as the Broadies aged and passed away -- a little piece here, a section there. It was a mess.
But that was a very a common way for Black families back then to pass on wealth to other generations, which allowed their children to pass it on, leverage it for other investments, or simply profit from a sale.
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. I would come to learn how, over a period of decades, what could have been an asset turned into a liability. Holding onto that land was just more trouble than it was worth.
In the first episode of The Pay Check, season three, I peel away the layers of my family’s journey through land ownership, and find a story that explains how so many other Black families found themselves separated from land their ancestors had owned. From there, we explore a city that’s considered a mecca for Black wealth, and find that it, too, is rife with disparities.
Listen to the episode for more, and subscribe to The Pay Check for a deep dive into the racial wealth gap.
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