Three ways mentoring can help disrupt the growing racial wealth divide

Written by Justin Preston

In a pair of new studies conducted at Yale University and the Institute for Policy Studies, researchers identified a troubling trend in the United States: The racial wealth divide is worse than we realize, and we are only growing further apart.

How bad is it? According to a study conducted by Yale researchers, both white and black families in the United States underestimate the size of the actual income disparity gap in our society. White families, in particular, overestimated the typical household income level of black families by more than 30%.

According to the authors of the Yale study, “It could be a lack of information, but there’s also a role of willful blindness. Wealth inequality based on race is baked into this country’s founding, and we cannot handle it.”

Josh Hoxie, co-author of Institute for Policy Studies’ article, states, “Three out of four white Americans ‘report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white, with no minority presence.’”

A further study investigated the state of the racial wealth divide beyond the gaps in income level, the focus of the Yale study. This second report investigated the racial gaps in wealth. That is, they looked at the household wealth, the assets a family has left over after debt is subtracted. The gaps here were even more striking than when investigating income alone.

The results were grim. According to the authors,

“We looked at how race, education, and income correlate with middle class wealth status, which we defined as owning between $68,000 and $204,000—between two-thirds to double the white median household.

We found that black and Latino families in the middle would need to earn between 2 and 3 times as much as white families in order to enter the middle class. By our count, roughly 70% of black and Latino households would fall below the $68,000 threshold needed for middle-class status, compared to only about 40% of white households.

Further, only black and Latino households with an advanced degree have enough wealth to be considered middle class, whereas the average white household with a high school diploma or higher would be considered middle class.

We also looked at the past three decades of racial wealth data to develop an idea of what the future will look like if current trends continue. The findings were bleak. The median black family, who today only owns $1,700 in wealth excluding their car, will reach zero wealth by 2053. That’s just 10 years after the country is projected to become majority non-white.

Median white families, by contrast, have $116,000 in wealth, and that number is actually going up.”

So where can mentoring take a role in helping stem the rush of this wealth divide? Here are three straightforward ways a mentor paired with a youth facing these barriers can help.

First, the most straightforward benefit of mentoring is the exposure effect. Mentoring brings you into contact with people from different generations and different backgrounds that you may not otherwise encounter as you travel through life. More than that, it enables you, as a mentor, to develop an appreciation and deeper understanding of the context of your mentee’s life. This can be a helpful step in developing empathy, which can have benefits in all phases of a mentor’s life.

Second, from a task-oriented perspective, you can help your mentee succeed academically by co-creating education goals and timelines for your mentee to help them achieve where they may have struggled on their own. Some examples include thinking about what steps the mentee would need to take in order to graduate from high school on time, laying out timelines for getting academic tasks done when they’re due, or even helping with challenging homework. Academic success has all sorts of benefits both immediately and down the road for young people, and still remains one of the most reliable paths to upward mobility in the United States.

Third, mentoring provides an opportunity for mentees to access social networks and capital that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This could include helping to prepare them for their first (or any subsequent) job interview, practicing the skills that are a necessity in the workplace, or connecting them with potential employers or people working in fields of interest to your mentee.

Every mentee is in a different situation, as is every mentor. This, then, does not mean that all of these steps or actions are possible or even necessary for you to take in your mentoring relationships. However, the wealth divide in the United States is not going to go away on its own. It is going to take hard work and dedication from the federal to the local level to promote positive change. Mentoring, the supportive relationship shared between an adult and youth, can serve as a part of the solution in helping to foster this change in the lives of mentees as well as in American society more broadly.

For more on the research studies mentioned in this piece, click here to access the Quartz article written by Josh Hoxie, a co-author of one of the papers.