Race, Property, and Citizenship

Brown, Eleanor & Carbone, June | July 24, 2021

The racial wealth gap is stunning. The net worth of an average White family is nearly ten times greater than that of an African-American family. A 2017 Prosperity Now report finds that for African-Americans, today’s economy is an extractive one; if existing trends continue, the median African-American family will have a net worth of zero by the middle of the twenty-first century. This Essay examines these trends in terms of the relationship between race, property, and citizenship. American democracy has long celebrated economic independence as a desired element of citizenship, forging reciprocal bonds between state efforts to promote and protect property ownership and property owners’ greater investment in community and political stability. African-Americans have long been excluded from these benefits and, in the process, have never fully enjoyed the benefits of American citizenship that comes with political clout. The result creates increased vulnerability, not just to White supremacy, but to economic exploitation. The lack of political clout contributes to lax regulation and enforcement of lending laws, which allow racially motivated predators to act with impunity, undermining the rule of law and perpetuating racial subordination. In the modern era, this predation has made home ownership, higher education loans, and marriage—the traditional pathways into middle-class status—dramatically riskier for African-Americans than for Whites.


Eleanor Brown is a Professor of Law and International Affairs, Associate Dean for External Affairs and Corporate Partnerships, Senior Scientist in the Rock Ethics Institute, The Pennsylvania State University, Conference Co-Host and Fundraising Chair, 2019 Lutie Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Writing Conference. June Carbone is the Robina Chair in Law, Science and Technology, University of Minnesota Law School.

Copyright 2021 by Eleanor Brown & June Carbone

Cite as: Eleanor Brown & June Carbone, Race, Property, and Citizenship, 116 Nw. U. L. Rev. Online 120 (2021), https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1313&context=nulr_online.