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Excerpted From: Keeva Terry, Black Assets Matter, 57 Tulsa Law Review 197 (Winter 2021) (205 Footnotes) (Full Document)

KeevaTerryWealth disparity in America is growing. The increasing divide between the haves and the have nots is routinely discussed in the news, and statistics reveal that this divide is even more alarming when viewed through a racial lens. The median wealth and net worth of the average white household is eight times that of the average Black household. Even more shocking, the typical Black household headed by someone with a graduate degree has less wealth than the typical white household headed by someone with only a high school diploma. Economists label this disturbing fact “the racial wealth gap,” which can be traced in part to tragedies like the Tulsa Race Massacre where lives were lost and asset accumulation and business development in the Black community were intentionally and purposefully destroyed.

In 1921, Tulsa's Greenwood community was a “thriving hub of the Black middle class, featuring a robust local Black economy.” It was estimated that the average dollar would stay within Greenwood for nineteen months before leaving the community. The attack on the Black community of Greenwood lasted forty-eight hours. When it was over, as many as 300 people were killed and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, including a Black owned hospital, school, library, theatre, and savings and loan association. Millions of dollars in generational wealth had been stolen or destroyed. The damage in Greenwood has been calculated to be approximately thirty million dollars in 2021 dollars, but there are no figures that can accurately represent the total effects of the Tulsa Race Massacre. What is known, however, is that the Black community suffered irreparable economic damage due to a permanent loss of property. Moreover, the harm Black people suffered in Tulsa is reflective of what spread across the nation--particularly affecting Black homeownership--the effects of which remain today and from which the Black community has yet to recover.

This article explores how certain members of the legal academy have attacked the racial wealth gap, and in the process, shined a light on the fact that asset protection, financial equity, wealth preservation, and economic equality are just as important for racial justice as the more traditional area of civil rights impact litigation. Eradicating the racial wealth gap requires addressing the legal system designed to protect existing economic structures that perpetuate the racial wealth gap and systemic racism. Much in the spirit of Dean Charles Hamilton Houston and his student, Justice Thurgood Marshall, who used the legal academy as a think tank and fertile soil to grow and develop litigation strategies while at Howard University School of Law, these twenty-first century academics have used their scholarship and service in the legal academy to introduce legislation and other legal initiatives to advance the cause for racial economic equity because racial justice cannot be achieved in the absence of economic equity. Importantly, they are targeting areas of the law often thought not to have significant racial justice implications such as real estate, financial regulation, intellectual property, tax policy, etc.

This article proceeds as follows. Part II describes the paucity of Black assets in America today and chronicles some of the factors that produced and continue to perpetuate the racial wealth gap. Part III of this article discusses six academics who helped to change the legal landscape around the country and to transform the legal academy by highlighting the importance of transactional law in the fight for racial justice. Part III also reviews some of the strategies implemented and lessons learned from these dynamic academics which can be utilized to help eradicate the racial wealth gap to achieve economic justice.

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Black assets matter because they have the power to shape identity, the power to employ members of the community, the power to influence policy, and the power to create generational wealth. In other words, Black assets have power. Hence, it is essential that financial literacy be an integral part of every K-12 educational curriculum.

Additionally, we must educate Black attorneys and law students about the need for and importance of transactional expertise. In the racial justice arena, while significant emphasis is placed on litigation, the need for and importance of transactional expertise is often overlooked and discounted. Transactional legal advice is crucial as we move forward to ensure the generational transfer of wealth to close the racial wealth gap. As one academic observed:

We're completely underrepresented in terms of transactional lawyers, in terms of folks who do tax and wills, trusts, real estate, probate, and a lot of the transactional stuff, but that has to do with helping families and communities build wealth and then maintain wealth that they have. And we are completely exposed in terms of not having sufficient numbers of African-American attorneys with that skillset.

The call for an increased emphasis on transactional work does not negate the importance of litigation in the fight for equality. It does, however, acknowledge the diversity of capabilities required to address the myriad of challenges associated with the acquisition and preservation of Black assets.

Wealth begets wealth. Asset protection, wealth preservation, financial equity, and economic equality are critically important for racial justice. Tragically, the Tulsa Race Massacre is only one in a series of similar events around the country in which the lives and generational wealth of Black families were stolen or destroyed. Regrettably, the Black community in Tulsa has yet to recover from this intentional Massacre which took place 100 years ago making it extremely important that we consider the strategies implemented and lessons learned from these dynamic academics. Eradicating the racial wealth gap remains a significant aspect of civil rights work in the twenty-first century because structural change in the economic system requires addressing the legal system designed to protect it.

Associate Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law. A.B., Harvard University; M.B.A., University of Michigan; J.D., Columbia University. A special thanks to my student research assistants--Alexis Chambers, Don Crawford, Rianna Felder, Capri Gaines, Taylor Hicks, and Oluwatomi Ogunsanya-- for their excellent work.

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