Journal Article

Changes in the Distribution of Black and White Wealth since the US Civil War


  • Derenoncourt
  • E.
  • Kim
  • C.H.
  • Kuhn
  • M.
  • Schularick
  • M.

The difference in the average wealth of Black and white Americans narrowed in the first century after the Civil War, but remained large and even widened again after 1980. Given high levels of wealth concentration both historically and today, dynamics at the average may not capture important heterogeneity in racial wealth gaps across the distribution. This paper looks into the historical evolution of the Black and white wealth distributions since Emancipation. The picture that emerges is an even starker one than racial wealth inequality at the mean. Tracing, for the first time, the evolution of wealth of the median Black household and the gap between the typical Black and white household over time, we estimate that the majority of Black households only began to dispose of measurable wealth around World War II. While the civil rights era brought substantial wealth gains for the median Black household, the gap between Black and white wealth at the median has not changed much since the 1970s. The top and the bottom of the wealth distribution show even greater persistence, with Black households consistently over-represented in the bottom half of the wealth distribution and under-represented in the top-10 percent over the past seven decades.

Experte IfW Kiel


JEL Classification
D31, G51, J15, N31, N32