Past Programs

Origins of the Racial Wealth Gap: Follow the Money

February 8, 2024

Gwen Moore

Gwen Moore, curator of Urban Landscape and Community Identity at the Missouri Historical Society joined us to examine the historic origins of the racial wealth gap, looking more closely at how these policies and practices have played out locally, impeding the building of Black generational wealth. 

Moore explained that the origins of the racial wealth date back to enslavement. In the 19th century, the basis of wealth in the U.S. was land ownership. Because Black people were denied land ownership both before and after enslavement, they were denied the ability to invest, save, buy stocks, and build equity, all elements of attaining assets and building wealth. As one of the most studied topics, the amount of information is overwhelming, and yet, Americans continue to grapple with this vexing and persistent issue. 

Today, white Americans hold ten times more wealth than Black Americans. The wealth of the White working class is 2-3 times higher than that of the Black professional class. The Rand Corporation predicts that if we do nothing, we will still have problems with racial wealth disparity in 200 years.

The wealth gap that exists today did not happen overnight nor by accident and must be understood by connecting the past to the present. It is a direct result of public and private policies that have systematically disadvantaged Black Americans from being able to build, maintain and pass on wealth. With its roots in enslavement, those considered property and not considered citizens could not own property. Following emancipation, formerly enslaved people were thrown off the land they had worked, given nothing, and continued to be excluded from policies and opportunities to build wealth.

The following examples highlight policies that contributed to the racial wealth gap:

  • The Homestead Act, enacted in1863, gave 160 acres of land for $12, that after five years of residence and improvement, become the property of the homesteaderBlacks could not take advantage of this otherwise very progressive act open to immigrants and women because they were not citizens as enslaved people. 
  • Special Order Number 13, a first attempt at reparations, ordered that formerly enslaved people should have 40 acres of land. Land was the basis of economic security and independence for the largely rural formerly enslaved people.
    1. Forty acres of land went to families. By June 1865, 40,000 people were settling on 4,000 acres largely, on the southeast coast.
    2. After Lincoln’s assassination, Blacks were thrown off the land and it was returned to the former confederates.
    3. Financial institutions say if the promise of the Homestead Act alone had been fulfilled, it would have amounted to wealth in the trillions for Black people.

Missouri’s status as a slave state and the role St. Louis played as a major center for trading and trafficking of enslaved people contributed to the local landscape of the racial wealth gap.  On the eve of emancipation, 3% of the St. Louis population was Black. By 1880, St. Louis had the third largest Black population in the country,at 5%. To many Whites this was a dramatic increase and a frightening “Colored invasion.” Whites saw themselves as “under siege” and used this term to invoke fear just as we do today with immigrant “invasion.” The Great Migration of African Americans from the south began in 1910. From that date, more and more Black people came into St. Louis, as one of the first places outside the deep south. By 1940, the Black population had increased to 13.4%. Jim Crow laws were in effect in St. Louis and responses to the increase in the Black population included hostility, segregation and containment. 

By 1910, racially restrictive covenants began to appear as a first response to the increase in the Black population, with over 300 in place by 1937. The real estate Industry played an active role in writing and funding racially restrictive covenants limiting options for Black people to own homes, resulting in St. Louis being one of the most aggressive cities in instituting these racial covenants. Despite efforts by some to limit segregation and the passage of the 1916 Segregation Ordinance that never took effect, segregation continued. The Real estate Industry decided where Black people could and could not live. As the Black population grew, these places became overcrowded and the situation became untenable, with very few choices for Blacks to move into other areas. Resistance came from James Busch, president of St. Louis Real Estate Brokers, an organization of Black realtors, and then by 1948 Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v Kraemer that ended legal enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in 1948.

The racial wealth gap was also reinforced by program on the federal level, including: 

  • Home Owners Loan Corporation, which bought mortgages to prevent foreclosures so people could keep their homes, allowed people to gain equity in homes for the first time. These government insured loans were limited to White people through a color-coding system that labeled all Black neighborhoods as dangerous, i.e. redlined. So Blacks could not get government insured loans in those areas.
  • GI Bill, which was supposed to be for all vets, Black and White, was not accessible to Black home buyers. These potential buyers could not take advantage of loans because they were restricted from buying property in many areas and could not get loans in redlined areas. Developers could not get government money for building an area of Blacks and Whites. If they built a development for Blacks, the Blacks could not get government loans, which led to developments with poor quality homes, no park access that lacked other amenities.

With limited opportunities to purchase property, Black Americans were limited to buying properties on contract, paying via installment plan. Residents were at the mercy of unscrupulous realtors and sellers, where the seller kept the deed, and residents could be evicted at any time, allowing them no legal protections and no opportunity to build equity. As a result of these barriers, Blacks lost billions in potential wealth.

Blacks were further denied home ownership when urban renewal become official U.S. policy from the 1940s – 1970, a policy James Baldwin referred to as “Negro Removal.”  This policy destroyed Black neighborhoods and areas sited for “slum clearance” were Black neighborhoods. Mill Creek, one of the largest Black neighborhoods impacted in the U.S., and the largest local Black neighborhood, was destroyed in 1958 in the name of urban renewal. Blacks were again prevented from accumulating wealth as their homes were destroyed and policies prevented them from purchasing homes elsewhere. As policies forced Blacks to rent as the only opportunity to find housing, the majority resisted, choosing to migrate north and west to avoid living in government housing.Plan was to make Black people renters. You cannot accumulate wealth as renters. 

The 1968 Freedom of Housing Act prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, among other characteristics. This was followed later the same year by the Jones V Mayer Supreme Court decision, which affirmed that such discrimination was indeed both illegal and unconstitutional. Joseph Jones, a Black man, with his wife, Barbara, a White woman, were prevented from purchasing a home in North St. Louis County because he was Black. The case was secretly financed by Alfred Mayer, the developer/builder of the home they were denied the purchase of. 

In 1973 St. Louis hired Team Four, a team of consultants, to create a new city planning project. The team identified three categories to describe neighborhoods/areas of the city:

  • Conservation – successful, no change needed
  • Redevelopment – good, but help needed
  • Depletion – spotty city services, redlining, large number of elderly residents, recipients of welfare, unemployed residents, i.e., Black areas

Team Four denied they supported denial of city services or lack of support in areas designated as “depletion areas,” but they did argue these areas had to be put “on back burner.” The city tried to keep this plan secret. Black citizens organized to fight the Team Four Plan. It was never implemented formally but it can be argued that it was unofficially implemented, as demonstrated by the huge amount of neglect and disinvestment since the 1960s in North St. Louis.

Disparities in home ownership are still a major driver of the wealth gap. Black families are at the bottom in terms of median income and home ownership in the U.S. In St. Louis County, 80% of White families own their own homes, while only 50% of Black families own their homes. The average household income for a White family in St. Louis in 2021 was $77,695, compared to $41,562 for a Black family. The median income for a White family was $55,000 compared to $28,000 for a Black family and $34,200 for a Hispanic family. 

Many say reparations are needed to close the gap. Several institutes suggest you cannot close the racial wealth gap, but can only make it smaller. It is widely believed that the wealth gap is the primary driver of all other racial disparities. 

What can we do?
The Urban Institute recommends a five-point framework to reduce the racial home-ownership gap:

  1. Advance policy solutions at the local Level
  2. Tackle housing supply constraints and affordability
  3. Promote an equitable and accessible housing finance system
  4. Accelerate outreach and counseling for renters and “Mortgage Ready” Millennials
  5. Focus on sustainable homeownership and preservation

Watch the recorded presentation here.

Time to Shift the Paradigm on Poverty

January 11, 2024

Mark Rank, Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis joined us at the January Women’s Voices program to explore and explain a new way of understanding and addressing poverty in America. Based upon his latest book, The Poverty Paradox, Rank discussed the paradigm shift he sees as necessary to changing our thinking about poverty:

  1. Poverty is an issue that affects us all.
  2. Poverty is the result of structural failure at the economic and political levels.
  3. The moral ground to view poverty should be one of injustice, particularly given the resources we have in the US.

Using examples from his research on the life course risk of poverty, Rank described how a majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their lives. He explored the reasons why the United States has some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality among the industrialized countries.

When asked what changes could be made to work toward a sustainable and humane future, where everyone is allowed to reach their full potential and no one is held back or stunted by poverty, Rank suggested individuals organize to advocate and work for:

  • Creation of adequately paying jobs
  • Access to affordable housing
  • Childcare that is accessible and affordable
  • Asset building, for both individuals and communities
  • A public safety net that is both effective and robust
  • Support for more union jobs
  • Controlling executive salaries, so they are not many times greater than the lowest paid employee

“Red Flag” Laws and Other Sensible Solutions to Curb Gun Violence

December 14, 2023

At the December Women’s Voices program, attendees heard from experts who discussed sensible solutions to the gun violence problem in the U.S. and our metropolitan area.

Jessica Woolbright, executive director at Saint Martha’s, addressed the domestic violence perspective. Michael A. Wolff, attorney, former Missouri Supreme Court judge and chief justice, and professor emeritus and former dean of Saint Louis University Law School presented the legal issues.

Watch the recorded presentation here.

The Case for Reproductive Rights as Religious Freedom

November 9, 2023

At the Women’s Voices November program, we heard from Brian Silva, vice president of Outreach and Engagement for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State

Jan Barnes, Cindy Bumb & Brian Silva

Separation of church and state guarantees religious freedom for all Americans, affording the right to believe as one chooses (religious or not) and to practice those beliefs as long as they don’t harm others.

On January 19, the National Women’s Law Center and Americans United filed a lawsuit  challenging Missouri’s abortion ban as a violation of the state constitution’s church-state separation protections. The suit was filed on behalf of fourteen Missouri clergy from seven faith traditions. 

Since the 1940s, the MO supreme court has ruled that the state constitution offers greater church-state separation protections than the U.S. constitution. The current U.S. Supreme Court is not particularly welcoming to protecting people’s rights, especially reproductive freedom. By filing in state court, this case will remain in state court, and will likely make it all the way to MO Supreme Court. 

AU has worked with other groups in other states passing legislation seeking to overturn abortion bans. The Missouri lawsuit is unique, as it is a challenge to overturn the ban for ALL PEOPLE as a violation of church-state separation, as opposed to other states’ challenges that have focused on protecting an individual’s exemption based on their religion. A dismissal hearing is scheduled for Thursday, November 16. This will be the state’s second attempt to have the suit dismissed; the first attempt having mostly failed in the summer. 

Attacks by White Christian nationalists on a variety of issues (gender expression, book bans, government benefits, access to healthcare, etc.) are an attempt to impose one narrow religious doctrine on all of us, in violation of the separation of church and state. 

Church-state separation is what shields our shared laws from the influence from any one religion. And it prevents lawmakers from abusing their power by enshrining their narrow set of religious beliefs in law.

Despite the threat to our many rights by those wishing to force all Americans to live by their preferred religious view, there are reasons to have hope. Two-thirds of Americans support church-state separation.

AU’s efforts to protect church-state separation include:

  • Activating people to take action in their communities
  • Filing a lawsuit in Oklahoma, where the state recently approved funding for the first public religious school in U.S. history
  • Establish a youth organizing fellows program
  • Hosting a summit for religious freedom
  • Sponsoring a student contest about what church-state separation means to you

Show Your Support for Abortion Rights in Missouri

The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, November 16 at 11 a.m. in St. Louis. This hearing will be the state’s second attempt to dismiss the case. While supporters are asked NOT to engage in any public activity (like a rally) at this stage of the case, members of the public are welcome and encouraged to attend the hearing.

Fighting Efforts to Dehumanize and Erase the LGBTQIA+ Community

October 12, 2023


Elizabeth J. Fuchs, MSW, field unit director, Office of Field Education, Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis

M. Paz Galupo, PhD, Audre Lorde Distinguished Professor in Sexual Health & Education, Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis

Jeremy Goldbach, PhD, Masters & Johnson Distinguished Professor in Sexual Health and Education, Fellow, Provost Office of Faculty Affairs and Diversity, Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis

Michaela Joy Kraemer, advocate

Elizabeth J. Fuchs, from the Sexual Health and Gender Center at Washington University in St. Louis framed the evening’s discussion with an introduction to the LGBTQIA+ space, sharing how history and policy have tended to erase the LGBTQIA+ community.  There has been an onslaught of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in state legislatures since the 2015 Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality for same-sex couples.

So far in 2023, the Movement Advancement Project has tracked more than 650 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills that have been introduced in 46 states.

Missouri saw the passage of two anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the 2023 legislative session. 

Senate Bill 49

  • Bans gender-affirming surgery for minors under 18.
  • Bans access to gender-affirming healthcare for minors NOT already on a prescribed path for healthcare (including puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy).
  • Restriction of access to medications for minors will sunset August 28, 2027.
  • Eliminates Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming healthcare for children or adults.
  • Prevents incarcerated people from receiving surgical gender-affirming healthcare while in state custody.

Senate Bill 39

  • Bans all transgender student athletes from kindergarten through college from being able to play sports on sanctioned school teams that align with their gender identity.
  • Applies to students in public, private, and charter schools.
  • Applies to schools who participate in competition against other teams who have a transgender athlete competing.
  • Sunsets four years from the date it goes into effect.
  • Schools that violate this law may face losing 100% of their state funding.

During the panel discussion, Elizabeth Fuchs was joined by Michaela Joy Kraemer, who shared her perspective from both a lived experience and as the former executive director of Metro Trans Umbrella Group. .

Dr. Jeremy Goldbach and Dr. Paz Galupo shared details about their work with the Sexual Health and Gender Center at Washington University in St. Louis and the impacts of the recently passed anti-LGBTQIA+ bills on care recipients and their families. They discussed the importance of learning about the experience of being a child considering a transition in gender and what gender-affirming care is. 

This program was sponsored by

Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis

Metro Trans Umbrella Group

Being Cherokee in St. Louis: Personal Stories & Hidden Truths

September 14, 2023

Speaker: Galen Gritts, registered member of the Cherokee Nation

Galen Gritts

Watch the recorded presentation here.


Archive of Past Program Years