Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.
The complete stripping of all that our family once possessed is part of my family’s legacy. My mother-in-law grew up in a then-traditional upper-middle-class household, with a nanny to care for her and her older brother, teaching them German, another household aide responsible for cleaning and cooking, and a chauffeur. Summers were spent at the lakeside with other families, winters for skiing in the mountains, and weekends were spent with the grandparents who resided in a village not too far from the city. That life came to an abrupt halt on March 16, 1939, when the Nazis invaded and occupied Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia.
Worse of all perhaps, my in-laws and their families were required to be visibly marked as an “inferior race” by wearing the yellow star in public.
Very early that morning my mother-in-law’s father received a call not to come to work, a managerial position in a large food production company. He lost his job and family income. Schools were no longer open to my mother-in-law and her brother. Possessions like radios, cars, jewelry, even pets were confiscated soon after. And worse of all perhaps, my in-laws and their families were required to be visibly marked as an “inferior race” by wearing the yellow star in public.
My mother-in-law and her brother survived the Holocaust, their parents and large extended family did not. Yet, all that the family had owned prior to the war was gone. One neighbor returned some of the items left with them, others stated that they would only return the family silver to her parents. Finding a small room barely large enough for a bed and convincing a Labor Union to hire her as a typist, even though she didn’t know how to type, my mother-in-law slowly began to rebuild her life.
She would marry and then—whilst pregnant—escape from Czechoslovakia, which became a Communist country. The young family settled in Israel, then a very poor country with food rationing. They lived in a one-room hut with no plumbing but were happy to live on their own land. A few years later, they would be able to add a bathroom. Life in Israel was not easy, but they had a large group of friends, most of them Holocaust survivors and talked of many happy gatherings.
In the US, they were able to establish themselves, slowly moving into a solid middle-class life. What helped was that they no longer faced systematic anti-Semitism.
The wars that Israel fought then scared my mother-in-law, who longed for a life of security away from death and destruction for her family that now included two young sons. They had applied for a visa to the US, which came through 11 years later. They finally made the trip, arriving in New York City with very little, beginning their life in the US with literally just a few dollars in their pockets and a few suitcases containing mostly clothing.
In the US, they were able to establish themselves, slowly moving into a solid middle-class life. What helped was that they no longer faced systematic anti-Semitism. My mother-in-law would never see the lifestyle she grew up in again, but she was able to afford travel to parts of the world she desired to see, a small cabin in the mountains to enjoy weekends at the lake in the summer and skiing in the winter, and most importantly, spend time with her grandchildren—an opportunity that her parents, murdered in their early 50s, never had.
The family wealth that once was is long gone. Not knowing the details of bank accounts in Switzerland and life insurance in the US, those resources could never be tapped into. However, because white Jews were accepted as part of the white population in the US, they benefited greatly from all the advantages that whiteness exudes: buying a house in a white suburban neighborhood with great schools for their sons, ample green space, clean air, and feeling protected by the police. White Jews had happily joined in the U.S. white supremacy status, supported by national policies such as the creation of white enclaves that excluded Blacks through white only covenants, a post-World War II GI bill that built the white middle class, and overall access to good credit not offered to Blacks.
And here is where this story of systematic wealth stripping experienced by this white family dramatically differs from that of Black families. History, when it is told, tells of countless incidences of destruction of affluent Black communities. The massacres in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 and in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 are just two of the better-known examples. Blacks building wealth for themselves and their communities would not be tolerated by their white neighbors.
This ongoing destruction of Black wealth, coupled with redlining and disinvestments in Black neighborhoods while supporting white suburban sprawl, further stripped Blacks of resources that whites had access to—and feel entitled to. White access and entitlement grew out of policies that promoted wealth-building opportunities for whites only. In more recent history, the Great Recession of 2008 took away from Blacks the little wealth they had been able to amass, with average wealth levels not returned to pre-Recession levels 12 years later. The Black-white wealth gap is large, much larger than the income gap, with about 5-10 cents to every dollar the average white household owns. Instead of narrowing, this gap has been growing over the past decades. Some say education will solve wealth disparities. However, as research has shown, a college education may slightly narrow income disparities but has no impact on the growing wealth disparities. Intergenerational transfers of wealth that whites have built over centuries on the backs of Blacks, cements the racial wealth gap.
The COVID-19 pandemic added more injury to existing oppression, with more cases and deaths among Blacks, as Black essential workers are more widely exposed to the Coronavirus, and Blacks face discrimination in health care, preventing many from enjoying the same level of care as whites have access to. Filmed police brutality finally woke up some of the white population, who joined their Black neighbors in protest and demands for defunding the police.
The white supremacy structure of the US permitted my in-laws to slowly regain some of what was lost.
Our family has experienced wealth stripping in one of the most brutal forms there is; however, the white supremacy structure of the US permitted my in-laws to slowly regain some of what was lost. The monthly reparation payments that both my in-laws received from Germany helped them throughout retirement.
The story for Black US Americans is a very different one. The US continues to uphold a system of white supremacy that is felt by Blacks at all levels, from cradle to grave. As Kimberly Jones stated it so well, after centuries of oppression and destruction, “We [the Black community] don’t own anything”! With most of the country’s wealth held in white hands, addressing the racial wealth gap must involve reparations, something my Jewish family was provided. Reparations will never undo the injustices of the past; they will however enable Blacks to create the wealth they have never been permitted to have.
Proposed federal legislation, HR 40 for the creation of a commission to study reparations, was first introduced in 1989 with very few cosponsors since then. This year the number of cosponsors has increased to 143 and a comparison bill was introduced in the Senate. After 31 years of no willingness to even support a study, there are signs that the US is finally willing and beginning to have a conversation about reparations. We are at a moment when many whites are waking up to that reality. Let’s make sure we don’t lose this momentum to finally create a country that values each citizen for their humanity and no longer sorts people by their skin color.