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Black History Month: A Closer Look At The Racial Wealth Gap In America

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As we celebrate Black History Month, we're taking a closer look at the racial wealth gap in America and its roots in the modern suburbs. The typical white household has about 10 times the accumulated wealth of the typical Black household. CBS This Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil dug into his own family history to help find out why.

Video Transcript

- As we celebrate Black History Month, we are taking a closer look at the racial wealth gap in America and its roots in the modern suburbs.

- The typical white household has about 10 times the accumulated wealth of the typical black household. "CBS This Morning" co-host, Tony Dokoupil, dug into his own family history to help find out why.

TONY DOKOUPIL: In 1953, my grandfather, Rudy Dokoupil, became a homeowner, moving my grandmother and three kids, including my dad, out of a tiny apartment in Manhattan and into a new house in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, one of America's growing suburbs. After World War II, millions of families made a similar move.

- Families are pursuing the American dream to give their children a better chance in life.

BOB GIANGERUSO: A lot of them were Masons, carpenters, plumbers.

TONY DOKOUPIL: Working class?

BOB GIANGERUSO: Working class.

TONY DOKOUPIL: Proudly so?


TONY DOKOUPIL: Bob Giangeruso is the Mayor of Lyndhurst and a lifelong resident.

BOB GIANGERUSO: We had great childhood here. It's priceless.

JOE COFONE: One of the best places you could ever imagine to grow up.

TONY DOKOUPIL: And Joe Cofone, a retired police officer, is an unofficial town historian. It sounds like a classic American suburb.

JOE COFONE: That's it. That's exactly, that's a really good way to put it.

TONY DOKOUPIL: But America's suburbs have another story less often told about who was able to buy these homes and benefit from that boom time economy and who was not.

DAVID TROUTT: It's just a remarkable record of exclusion.

TONY DOKOUPIL: David Troutt is a law professor at Rutgers University, Newark.

DAVID TROUTT: It is not accidental. And it is not just a question of bad attitudes. It's a question about inequitable rules.

TONY DOKOUPIL: From the 1930s to the 1960s, the major federal programs that developed the suburbs and guaranteed mortgages were for whites only, first, as a matter of policy, and later, in practice. Redlining, for example, is a term that comes from these 1940s era maps adopted by the Federal Housing Authority. Green, blue, and yellow areas were typically eligible for government backed loans and investment. The red areas were not, leaving them starved for resources.

And as I look back at Lyndhurst and the surrounding county where my great grandparents also owned a home, I noticed those redlined areas had a lot in common. They were anywhere from 45% to 95% Negro, the term used. Some had wells spoiled by typhoid.

Some did not have city gas or utilities going to all the properties. Some were divided off by a railroad line or an elevated train, so physical segregation, in addition to everything else. Any of that surprise you?

DAVID TROUTT: Not at all. In fact, you can multiply those findings across the country. Those who were fortunate enough to enjoy the largesse of this government were able to see benefits accrue over generations, which they could then share with their children and their grandchildren. And so to be left out of that process of household wealth accumulation has been devastating for Black families.

TONY DOKOUPIL: By 1950, about half the new home purchases in America were made with government backed loans. But 98% of them went to white buyers. And among veterans like my grandfather in the lucrative New York, New Jersey area, it was more than 99%. It's an uncomfortable fact that families like mine are only just beginning to face.

JOE COFONE: Wait a minute. You're telling me they were only going to mortgage white people?


JOE COFONE: For you to say that Lyndhurst is the way it is because-- it almost implies that Lyndhurst was racist.

TONY DOKOUPIL: No, this is my family too. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that-- I'm saying we had no idea.

JOE COFONE: You're right. Most people would not have known that the federal government had this program in place.

LEE PORTER: A lot of people did not know.

TONY DOKOUPIL: But a lot of people, Lee Porter, among them, were personally, physically aware that racist policies prevented Black families from moving into highly desired neighborhoods.

LEE PORTER: I didn't call it redlining, but yeah, that's what it was.

TONY DOKOUPIL: What did you call it?

LEE PORTER: We called it, this is the area that persons of color can live.

TONY DOKOUPIL: At 94 years old, Porter still runs the Fair Housing Council of Bergen County. She's been here since the 1960s when she and her husband were blocked from buying homes they could afford. How did you feel when you found out that real estate agents were steering you away from the white houses?

LEE PORTER: I was quite angry about it. But I was persistent. I was determined to get what I wanted, the same as anybody else.

TONY DOKOUPIL: But Black families who couldn't own those nicer homes have not been able to build the same wealth over time. Many Americans, me included, are only just now coming to terms with how big a role our federal government had in enforcing discrimination. Now, that we do know--


TONY DOKOUPIL: What do we do about it?

JOE COFONE: That's a good question. I don't have the answer to that, Tony. I wish I did.

- That is the question. And that was "CBS This Morning" co-host, Tony Dokoupil reporting there for us. And as Black History Month continues, you will see a series of stories here on CBS2 News. You can also find more reports at cbsnewyork.com.