Yale Professor Offers New Insights into Racial and Economic Disparity and Bold Solutions to Close the Gap

In his recently published book, “Being Black, Living in the Red,” Yale Professor Dalton Conley argues that accumulated wealth is the overlooked but single-most powerful determinant of class-based racial inequality in America.

Though occupation, income and education are conventionally deemed the defining rungs on a socioeconomic ladder – which, presumably, anyone can climb – Conley reasons that wealth, or assets handed down from one generation to another, is the ultimate source of class differentiation in our society, and that lack of wealth has, more than any other factor, undermined opportunities for African Americans.

“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,” Conley sums up.

After taking the reader through the historical and statistical evidence to support his theory, Conley presents solutions to the multifaceted problem.

First, Conley endorses affirmative action approaches that are based on parental asset levels rather than race or income alone. This 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 housing-based assets – which for most American families has traditionally been the greatest source of wealth – Conley supports a policy of government-sponsored “social insurance.” Such insurance would protect property owners from the decline in home values that accompanies “white flight” from integrating neighborhoods. He 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 of Germany to Holocaust survivors. Though politically unfeasible, such a model, he argues, would be more effective than “community development” programs, like “enterprise” or “empowerment” zones, which are intended more to create jobs than to provide the profit-driven incentive to accumulate capital.

Conley is an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Yale. “Being Black, Living in the Red” is based on his dissertation, which was named best graduate thesis for 1996 by the American Sociological Association. Conley earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

“Honky,” Conley’s second book, will be published in 2000. “Honky” is Conley’s personal account of growing up white in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican housing project. The University of California Press is the publisher of both books.

Conley welcomes inquiries from the media.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345