Sustainability: Economic Privilege and Closing the Racial Wealth Gap




Since 2011, our family has become more intentional about the ways in which we consume and spend our money. A huge part of that shift was a result of my partner's medical training and my graduate school experience. My partner, a fourth year resident doctor who is finally finishing off eight years of medical training this summer, gets paid a salary that comes to roughly $13 per hour. Yet, he still makes more than $32,000, which puts us at the top 1% of earners world-wide. Of course, there is much more nuance when we talk about numbers, especially when we factor in racial wealth disparities, cost of living (COL) and having a family of three during this time of training.

Like many other resident doctors, we also have the added expense of the remaining balance of medical school loans. I will be discussing this factor in more detail below, since generational wealth--wealth in general--plays a huge role in the amount of debt that medical students of all cultures incur. Further, doctors with White privilege experience additional benefits in their career path that must be taken into account, too. My partner, who is a White CIS gender man, benefits from that. As we move into this new chapter of our lives post-medical training, we are even more conscious of what we can do to continue to close and bring awareness to the racial wealth gap and how it informs our sustainability efforts as a family. I am sharing this piece as a way to begin shifting our collective consciousness of how wealth is earned and maintained in this country, and what folks with White and/or economic privilege can do to make change.

As parents raising anti-racist families, we must stop perpetuating false myths that continue to feed the narrative that does not support the liberation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). I will be focusing on the myth that education will close the racial wealth gap. This myth in essence states that, if BIPOC "pull themselves up by their boots straps" to push through and get a higher-education degree, then, suddenly, they will gain access and achieve the "American Dream." In reality, this notion could not be farther from the truth. In my case, I was able to graduate with a B.S. and go on to graduate school; however, the amount of debt that I incurred was immense. Although I did receive grants and scholarships, I still had to apply for loans to cover all of my living expenses. I am a first-generation college student and come from a migrant Puerto Rican family that struggled with the language and culture in a new country. In Puerto Rico, we may have been able to live with less income and had the added benefit of our inherited land, but none of that transferred over with our migration.

We experienced a huge gap in understanding of the financial aid system in the U.S. My lack of financial literacy in the context of school loans was a result of my family's own financial illiteracy. I lived below the poverty line all throughout my college experience, even though I always held a full-time job. What I will write next, however, will put me in a privileged group of folks in America: I no longer have any student loan debt. I was able to pay off my loans in the first few years of marriage. We were able to use all of the money that I made working in the private sector to pay off all of my loans. We did not have to worry about living expenses during the time that my partner was in medical school because of his financial know-how within our capitalist system. This would likely not have been the case if I worked in the same industry while living alone. Which would be likely, unless somehow, I generated enough wealth within a year to pay off over 60K in student loan debt, while simultaneously pay off my living expenses. Simply put, the gap in wealth that I experienced was a direct result of my lack of financial literacy and further compounded by disparities based on skin color that informed my experience.

My partner's experience as a CIS gender White man was very different from my own. He had a very real advantage and experienced privilege as a third-generation business owner. In the majority of the spaces that I am in, I benefit from that privilege, especially when he is present. We often talk about the nuances in the ways we were raised and how starkly different our financial experience was in college. My partner was able to graduate undergrad and graduate school without any loans. Generational wealth, when compounded by race, allows for folks with White privilege to access education in a way that is almost impossible for BIPOC like me to do. Nevertheless, I was able to graduate as a research scholar with a 3.5 GPA despite having the odds against me, but I am the exception to the rule.

According to Duke University's 2018 Samuel DuBois Cook Center Social Equity Report (1),
Low family wealth can have an adverse effect on the next generation’s educational attainment. Family wealth is a predictor of both college attendance and college completion (Meschede et al. 2017). Black students are more likely to take on student loans and accumulate student loan debt, and they are more likely than white students to drop-out of a university because of financial concerns. Ironically, their wealth position could deteriorate because of their intense motivation to pursue higher education (Shapiro et al 2013).
I cannot tell y'all how many times I wanted to quit undergrad; but, I knew I could not, because then I would be left with an even smaller chance of living a life out of poverty in this country as a Brown woman with only a high school degree. At that time, I was already planning to attend graduate school, too. Racial wealth disparities stem from an unequal system that works against BIPOC and our ability to generate wealth at the same rate as folks with White privilege in this country, because so many of us are already at a financial disadvantage even if we have higher income. According to Duke University's report, "Patently, wealth is far more unequally distributed than income. While income primarily is earned in the labor market, wealth is built primarily by the transfer of resources across generations, locking-in the deep divides we observe across racial groups" (1). 

A big part of the transfer of resources has been housing, inheritance and land, all of which have been historically denied to BIPOC for generations via red-lining and racial covenants across U.S. cities. Many of us might also be attempting to close the gap as first-generation earners while trying to generate wealth at the same time. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, Duke University's report outlines the dismal numbers of wealth before and after a college-degree for Black families. The following depicts the median net worth by race and education between White and Black families (1):
But what do these numbers and racial disparities have to do with sustainability? Read on and you'll discover that they are directly related. However, they may not be related in the way you have been conditioned to think.

Sustainability is defined as:
"...the process of maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations (2)."
Sustainability is much more nuanced than only buying the latest trendy "sustainably-made" jacket. It is not sustainable to continue to perpetuate the myth that education is the only answer for BIPOC to close the racial wealth gap. Rather, it is about maintaining change in a way that helps redistribute wealth and resources to help everyone, especially those most marginalized in our society. As a family, we approach sustainability in a way that not only meets our needs in a "How does your sustainability affect change outside of your home?" If you are a person with White privilege, are you unpacking your own internal biases against BIPOC and assumptions about waste? Have you only defined sustainability as sustainably-made products that feed capitalism or are you spending your privilege in a way that can meet the needs of other humans who do not have as many choices? In our case, we are almost done paying off our medical student debt, which is huge privilege at this stage in our lives. As a result of that, we are able to support organizations that are helping BIPOC enter into medicine, and once we are out of training we are planning ways to continue to do so in bigger ways. Further, at this stage, I am also able to help marginalized folks through my own efforts on this blog. 

Given all of this, growing up, we lived a low-waste lifestyle not because we were conscious of it. Rather, we had to live simply due to our financial circumstances. So much of my resiliency and resourcefulness I owe to my parents, even though we struggled in terms of financial literacy in our capitalist system and imbalanced environment. We purchased thrifted clothes because new items were a luxury. My mother mended our clothes and I wore mostly hand-me-downs. We shopped at stores that did not have bags because it was less expensive and barely wasted food because we could not. We saved on water and resources because we had to. I don't remember ever using paper towels growing up; in fact, my parents still never buy any paper towels now because they were a luxury item. Sustainable living was the way we lived. In college, I did not have the luxury of thinking about whether or not I was living sustainably; I was trying to survive with what I could afford.

For several years, I struggled to reconcile having more choices and not tethering my happiness to society's conditioned expectations of how we "should" live now that we have the finances to do so. Even more so, now that we are entering post training when our own income will increase significantly. We are conscious of economic privilege and how our children must also be aware that not only did their ancestors respect the earth in a way that was harmonious with it's resources, but they later struggled to be included in the redistribution of wealth. It was terrifying for me to become financially conscious because it meant facing my deeply-rooted issues with money that I needed to heal. I’ve also been thinking about the spaces we create for ourselves, our new found opportunity of choices and how this relates to our internalized wounds.

When I first started writing this piece, I was going to be sharing ten ways I have made my life less wasteful--hence the photo of me making my make-up remover. Don't y'all worry, I'll be sharing that too... However, something kept tugging at me. I knew that I had to dig deeper into what it really means to live sustainably. Sustainable living for those of us with economic privilege is not only about less waste or buying products that are made in an eco-friendly way. It is about bridging the gap on racial wealth disparities, supporting BIPOC-owned ethical businesses and giving money to BIPOC who are doing anti-racism work. If you are able to buy a daily or even weekly coffee at your local  coffee shop, then you are able to support a BIPOC's Patreon that is doing work within a system that does not support them. My last question to you is: How are you spending your economic privilege in a way that helps close the racial wealth gap in our country?




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(1) Read the full "What we get wrong about closing the racial wealth gap" report here: https://socialequity.duke.edu/sites/socialequity.duke.edu/files/site-images/FINAL%20COMPLETE%20REPORT_.pdf
(2): Definition sourced from: http://www.globalfootprints.org/sustainability/



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