Race, Wealth and Young Dreams

ONCE THEY HAVE been stated, certain new ideas seem obvious. Take Issac Newton’s insight that some force must cause apples to fall. Or Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that all men are created equal.

Of course, we say, why didn’t we see it all along?

I had that kind of reaction to research by a Yale sociologist named Dalton Conley that was published in a recent book with an academic title: “Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America.”

Conley’s big idea addresses the perplexing fact that black and white students from homes with identical incomes do not perform equally well. Why is a white girl much more likely to graduate from college than a black girl from a family that earns just as much money?

That gap in performance — not only in education, but in employment, welfare and crime — is terribly disturbing. It fuels racism. At times, I have found myself wondering if my deepest beliefs about equality are valid. I hate the thought.

Conley’s epiphany came during a graduate seminar where a professor was presenting a table on the wealth of blacks and whites, but addressed by income, in the traditional way. Conley thought: Why not look at wealth, at family assets, as opposed to merely earnings? Would the differences in academic achievement still be there? He almost dismissed his own insight. A million people, he thought, must have studied this before.

As it turned out, nobody had. And when Conley did, he discovered that if you looked at the assets of black families and white families, or in other words their wealth, their children performed equally in school.

The problem is, Conley writes in “Being Black:” “At all income, occupational and educational levels, black families on average have drastically lower levels of wealth than similar white families.”

Assets, or wealth, Conley says, are what allow families to move to good neighborhoods with better schools, to ride out tough times, to cushion the strains of college for their children. Generations of discrimination have deprived even most high-earning black families the chance to accumulate wealth, and “parental wealth is the biggest factor standing between black and white successes at the university level.”

Being middle class, as we who are know full well, involves more than income. It is a sense that somehow there will always be enough to provide what our kids truly need. “It has to do with a lot more than financial resources,” Conley says. “It is cultural, social — who you know, what you know.”

His own background provides proof of how resources — assets in the fullest sense — can be more important than income alone in giving your child a leg up.

Conley grew up in a housing project on New York’s Lower East Side, the child of a writer and an artist. He and his sister were about the only white kids in a largely Puerto Rican and black neighborhood.

“My childhood was like a social science experiment,” Conley says. “Find out what being middle class really means by raising a kid from a good family in a bad neighborhood.”

There may have been bars on the windows, tough kids may have stolen his baseball glove at knife-point, but when things got too rough, his parents had the friends and know- how to get their kids into a better school in another neighborhood. The Conleys may have been on food stamps, but they had middle- class expectations.

Now, at 30, Conley is an assistant professor at Yale. This summer, he is publishing a memoir called “Honky,” about his experiences growing up. His doctoral thesis, which became “Being Black,” was selected as the best of its year by the American Sociological Association.

Was his background necessary to his central insight? “I don’t know,” he says. “I’d like to say yes, but I’m too much of a sociologist to say so. I do think it’s where my interest in race and class comes from. The answer is, probably.”

His demonstration in “Being Black” that assets, not income, are the determining factor in many kinds of performance, meanwhile, has important implications for public policy. “I’m not saying wealth is the magic bullet,” Conley says. “What I’m saying is that the way government focuses on income to the exclusion of wealth means we’re making public policy based on half the story.”

He proposes, for instance, that government policy should aggressively support the accumulation of property by poor people, instead of penalizing them for having assets the way Medicaid and welfare programs do.

It seems so obvious. “People who have a stake in the American dream,” says Dalton Conley, “are better citizens.”

Mike Weiss’ column will appear every other week in the Sunday section. You can e-mail him at mweiss@sfgate.com, or for other ways to reach him see Page 3.

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