In the United States, freedom is synonymous with capital. And capital has historically been bestowed in a disproportionate manner upon those who were born into whiteness. Therefore, the country will need to undertake radical steps to address the imbalance that whiteness confers, said race scholar Darrick Hamilton, Ph.D. at a lecture on March 24.

“Racism, sexism, and other ‘isms’ are not simply irrational prejudices, but long-leveraged, strategic mechanisms for exploitation that have benefited some at the expense of others,” he said.

Hamilton, the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy and founding director of the Institute on Race and Political Economy at The New School, noted that in a just world, one’s race, gender, or ethnicity “would have no transactional value as it relates to material outcomes.” The pandemic made it abundantly clear that is not the case.

“We should recognize that the biggest pre-existing condition of them all is wealth itself,” he said.

Hamilton’s lecture, “A Moral Responsibility for Economists: Anti-Racist Policy Regimes that Neuter White Supremacy and Establish Economic Security for All,” was the second distinguished economics lecture, which was launched last year by the economics department’s climate committee as a way to enhance diversity and inclusion.

‘Dysfunctional Concentration of Wealth and Power’

Hamilton began by pointing out that even before the pandemic, the United States was afflicted by an “obscene, undemocratic, dysfunctional concentration of wealth and power.” Currently, the top .1% of earners in this country—defined as those earning $1.5 million a year—own as much of the nation’s wealth as the bottom 90 percent of earners. The bottom 50 percent of earners own 1% of the nation’s wealth, he said.

This has affected Black people and other people of color disproportionately, as they’ve been denied economic opportunity through official policies such as redlining in the 1950s and events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. But the narrative of why Black Americans have been unable to attain wealth has not reflected this history, he said.

The Narrative is Wrong

“Much of the framing around the racial wealth gap, including the use of alternative financial service products, focuses on poor financial choices and decision-making on the part of largely Black, Latino, and poor borrowers. The framing is often tied to and derived from a culture of poverty thesis, in which Blacks are presumed to have a low value for and desire for education,” he said.

“The framing is wrong; the directional emphasis is wrong.”

The idea that education alone is the path to prosperity is itself belied by what Hamilton called the “property rights,” which are the advantages that whites have been granted through history by the government.

Disparities in Education and Health

Black college students today are saddled with an average of $53,000 in debt, while white students graduate with an average debt of $33,000. Black college graduates are actually overrepresented in graduate education, relative to their share in the population, he said, but this is not enough. On average, a Black family with a head of the household who dropped out of college still has less wealth than a white family where the head dropped out of high school, he said.

“The fact that a Black expectant mother with a college degree has a greater likelihood of an infant death than a white expectant mother who dropped out of high school, and a Black man with a college degree is three times more likely to die from a stroke than a white man who dropped out of high school—these are all examples of property rights in whiteness,” he said.

Hamilton said that reparations are a necessary remedy but would only be a start. Only by implementing a program such as baby bonds, where government creates investment accounts for infants that give them access to capital when they turn 18, would we get the bold, transformative, anti-racist, anti-sexist policies that are long overdue.

“We need a deeper understanding of how devaluing, or othering, individuals based on social identities like race relates to political notions of deserving and undeserving,” he said.

“The structures of our political economy and race go well beyond individual bigotry as a matter of course.”

Eye-Opening for Students

Andrew Souther, a senior majoring in economics and math at Fordham College at Rose Hill, said that the talk was eye-opening for him, as his senior thesis is focused on behavioral economics, where biases and discrimination are key concepts.

“The language that Dr. Hamilton used in basically describing racism as this very strategic collective investment, as one group strategically investing in this identity of whiteness which has a return and also extracts from other people—that is a really, really powerful concept,” he said.

“It really cuts at something much deeper and much more radical than just conversations about behavioral biases, which of course are important too.”

Sophie Mitra, Ph.D., a professor of economics, said Hamilton’s perspective was an example of a topic students at Fordham might not otherwise be exposed to in the course of their studies, a key goal of the series.

“At a time of extreme polarization in the United States, Dr. Hamilton’s scholarship and anti-racist policy proposals are more important than ever,” she said.

“He powerfully prompted us to think about the need to move from an economy centered on markets and firms to a sustainable moral economy, an economy with, at its core, economic rights, inclusion, and social engagement.”

The full lecture can be viewed here.