I’ve been interested in race and wealth since my youth growing up the second of five kids in Beverly Hills, Calif. I did not like what I saw of how African American citizens were treated in our affluent community. The few black students in my high school tended to be children of the staff who worked in wealthy homes locally. This disparity bothered me, opening my eyes to social justice.
I went to college during the peak of the Vietnam War, where I began to immerse myself in social justice issues, including Civil Rights and protesting the war. I was working on a Ph.D. in sociology when I got involved in a social movement that was working to end routine sterilization of women on welfare. We convinced a federal agency to require the signing of a consent form and a waiting period before sterilization would occur. That success was exciting and motivated me to continue.
My scholarly and advocacy work on race and wealth began alongside my best friend in grad school, Dr. Melvin Oliver, now president of Pitzer College. We were very interested in the field of social stratification and race. After we graduated and became professors, we worked together to find out more about family assets and liabilities across the racial divide. For the first time, we had data and a term for the racial wealth gap. We wrote a well-received book on the topic. A movement to close the racial wealth gap was born.
The understanding of the racial wealth gap changed the paradigm for discussions of poverty and inequality. We argued you can’t think of poverty or social mobility without making race central.
The gap has gotten wider since those early days. Much of the data is depressing but I find it invigorating to drill down into the policies and structures that result in the racial wealth gap. We can now look at potential policies around things like home ownership, higher education, employment benefits, and the tax code to see what effect they have on closing the gap.
The current picture is grim, but far from hopeless. Much can be done to protect vulnerable groups, including blacks and Hispanics, from letting their economic prospects slip down further compared to whites’. Knowledge is power, and we now have the data to devote resources to policies that will have the greatest impact. I am pleased and grateful to be an active part of that movement.
My wife Ruth and I live in Jamaica Plain, Mass., with Madeira, our Portuguese Water Dog; happily, our son Izak lives close by in Somerville. —Tom Shapiro
About Thomas M. Shapiro
Thomas Shapiro directs the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) and is the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at The Heller School at Brandeis University. He is the author of several award-winning books in the field of racial-based inequity. He is active in the national Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative managed by Global Policy Solutions (globalpolicysolutions.org) and Insight Center for Economic Development (Insightcced.org).
Awards and Honors
- Asset and Opportunity Champion Award, CFED (2016)
- Asset Builder of the Year Award, Congressional Tri-Caucus (Black; Asian-Pacific American; and Hispanic) (2014)
- Fulbright Scholar, South Africa (2011)
- Residency Fellow, Rockefeller Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy (2005)
- The Hidden Cost of Being African American named one of the Best Books of the Year, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2004)
- Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award, American Sociological Association (1997)
- C. Wright Mills Award, Society for the Study of Social Problems (1996)