I inherited a substantial amount of money from my mother. Not never-work-again substantial, but large enough to interest a financial planner. For the seven years that I’ve possessed this money, I’ve been incredibly uncomfortable with it. If I talk about it, I go into long explanations of how it’s really money my mother got from her mother and it doesn’t mean anyone in the family was rich. I’ve taken care to cordon it off from the rest of my life, so that I continue being as “poor” as possible. And you should see me falling over my feet trying to wave away the fact that I have a financial planner. Basically, having this money is totally dissonant for me, and I keep wondering: where did it come from and how did I end up with it and what does it mean that I have it?
Four decades after the Civil Rights movement, Blacks still earn only 57 cents and Latinos earn 59 cents for each dollar of White median family income. The contrast is even starker for net wealth; that is, the total value of investments, savings, homes and other property minus any debt. Blacks hold only 10 cents of net wealth and Latinos hold 12 cents for every dollar that Whites hold.
Indeed, Diana said that while the median income, including debt, for a white single woman today is $42,000, for a black single woman it’s five dollars. But the important thing to grasp here, I think, is how much more wealth white people have access to. Using herself as an example, as she often did, Diana explained that she was able to return to New Orleans relatively quickly after Katrina because a parent of hers provided the downpayment on a new house.
Now, where did my mother’s money come from?
- From the sale of her small New Jersey condo.
- From the money she herself inherited from my grandmother and didn’t live to use up.
How did she manage to buy that condo? Her brother lent her the money and held the mortgage.
Where did that money in turn come from? From my grandparents. Where did my grandparents’ money come from? From the house in East Brunswick where my mother grew up. From their pension-paying jobs as a chemist and a public-school teacher. From their parents.
Where did their parents’ money come from? From the opportunities they (or perhaps their parents) had to amass wealth as immigrant Jews who eventually became white.
White privilege paid me money. And in trying to minimize and rationalize away the wealth it has given me, I was trying to repudiate my own privilege. Which can’t be done, and (to paraphrase Diana again) until I understand the truth of that in my heart, my own divorce from racism can’t really begin.