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This year, the Kentucky Law Journal’s annual symposium examined issues surrounding the racial wealth gap in the United States, including the history of the racial wealth gap, legal rules that have contributed to its growth, and the tax laws that have exacerbated existing wealth inequalities.

The event was held virtually and in-person in October in the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law’s G. Chad Perry III Grand Courtroom.

“The subject for today is the long-standing and substantial wealth disparity between families in different racial and ethnic groups in this country,” UK Rosenberg Law Dean Mary J. Davis said in her opening remarks. “In recent Federal Reserve data, the typical white family was calculated to have eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.”

According to the Brookings Institution, a think tank, the racial wealth gap reveals the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity, that can be traced to the inception of the United States.

The Kentucky Law Journal convened “a stellar array of scholars and policy analysts” to explore the history and policies that have created the disparity, Davis said. The panelists also explored solutions to the problem.

Jennifer Bird-Pollan, a tax law expert and associate dean of academic affairs, helped organize the symposium and commended Editor-in-Chief Kelly Daniel and Special Features Editor Kendra Craft for their dedication to the Kentucky Law Journal and the symposium.

“It is undeniable that the wealth in this country is held inequitably, and that it is getting worse,” Bird-Pollan said. “In 1990, the richest 1 percent of Americans held six times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent. But in 2021, the top 1 percent holds about 16 times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent. Even within those extremes, that wealth is not held equitably by all Americans.”

The median white family’s net wealth is about $188,000. The median Hispanic family’s net wealth is about $36,000. And the median Black family’s net wealth is about $24,000.

“When we see all the ways that individual and family wealth contribute to stability and opportunity in the United States, it is undeniable that white children have advantages from the beginning that are unavailable to their Black peers, and those advantages continue,” Bird-Pollan said.

She said state and federal law and policies have contributed to, and exacerbated, this divide. Bird-Pollan provided an overview of the topics explored in detail by panelists.

“Housing laws at the local, state and federal levels have ensured that when Black families buy homes – often the most valuable asset that a family will own – those homes will not be worth as much as the homes owned by their white counterparts and the homes may, and likely will, continue to decline in value as the racial implications of property and zoning laws come into full effect.”

Federal and state tax laws further contribute to the wealth disparity between white and Black families, Bird-Pollan said. Panelists explored laws related to government-provided health benefits, recent government subsidies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their availability to certain categories of people, Bird-Pollan said. The scholars who presented at the symposium also explored the effect of state and federal education policies on the increasing racial wealth gap and the racial histories of state constitutions.

“Many politicians and policymakers argue for using law and policy as tools to combat the racial wealth gap,” Bird-Pollan said. “We must first understand what role those same laws and policies have played in creating and exacerbating the position we find ourselves in today.”

The six panels were: Real Estate, Housing, and Blockbusting; Implications of Tax Code Bias; Wage Enslavement and Prison Entrapment; The Problem with Colorblindness; The Racial Wealth Gap, Government Health Benefits, and Economic Inequality; and State-Focused Policy Solutions.

Click here to watch a recording of the symposium.