“People that are super-wealthy are more likely to be white,” commented a participant in one of our recent research focus groups, adding “so areas are becoming whiter.”
This participant drew a link between racial identity, wealth, and people’s experiences of life across London today. It’s a view replicated across our research on the racial wealth divide, with participants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds highlighting ongoing structural inequalities, which have proven difficult to dismantle – and which people fear may become more extreme through the deepening cost-of-living crisis.
Wealth vs income
Looking at wealth instead of income, as a measure of inequality, can highlight longstanding systemic disparities between different ethnic groups, giving a fuller picture of economic inequality in the UK. Wealth is more complex than income. It assesses the value of all assets an individual owns, including property, savings, investments and pensions – whereas income refers to an amount of money made in a certain time, such as wages, salary and benefits. And when it comes to wealth, there’s a marked disparity between different ethnic groups. In fact, the Runnymede ‘Colour of Money’ report (2020) found that white British households are 10 times wealthier than Black African and Bangladeshi households.
Since February, we have been working with a team of researchers from the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE), to explore Londoners’ perspectives on this ‘racial wealth divide’. Recognising our own backgrounds – as three white women – we led the ‘white British’ element of the research, conducting focus groups online with white professionals, investigating their opinions on wealth, and exploring whether they believed their access to wealth was different from other ethnic groups’. Meanwhile, four peer researchers were recruited from different communities across London to speak with Indian, Bangladeshi and Black participants. Starting with an analysis workshop and discussions at the LSE and Runnymede’s recent conference, ‘Building Bridges: connecting stories and championing racial justice,’ we have begun the process of comparing how different communities in the capital think about and define wealth.
Property and inheritance
It’s been fascinating. Firstly, most white, professional focus group participants viewed wealth largely as a person’s ability to own a home – something several worried they may never achieve. A handful felt, because of the cost-of-living crisis, it was hard to separate wealth disparities between ethnic groups, and suggested that wealth gaps exist in more traditional ‘rich vs poor’ categories. One participant said they “find it tricky to split out what’s a consequence of just poverty or a lack of wealth, and what’s a consequence of race, specifically”.
Some participants felt that, although many white people struggle to get on the property ladder, it’s significantly harder for ethnic minorities. One shared, “You need such an extreme level of wealth to purchase a house, especially in London, that people are priced out. So, in order to acquire wealth, it’s very helpful to already have generational wealth. That’s the case for everybody – but for black African and Bangladeshi people, that problem is even more significant.”
The white professionals we spoke to all felt inheritance played a significant role. “I don’t know many people that have bought their own property, but those that have [used] at least some family wealth to pay a deposit. I don’t know anybody that has saved without using family wealth. And those people that I know that have saved have done it by living at home with their family and not paying rent while they worked. So even in that circumstance, they’re still relying on their parents to be able to save”.
Defining wealth differently
Through our conversations with LSE and peer researchers, it has become clear that the experiences of white professionals in London share similarities with those of other groups. Unsurprisingly, high property prices are a concern for most of the Londoners we interviewed, across different racial and ethnic groups. However, some striking differences have emerged too.
For example, Zuhur Ahmed, a peer researcher who conducted focus groups with young Black Londoners found that many participants spoke of a ‘black and brown tax’ – a term they used to describe the expectation to share wealth with family and community members. This impacted participants’ income, as they might be expected to give a portion of their monthly earnings to help others. Longer term, this had implications for participants’ ability to build wealth in the form of home ownership or the accumulation of other assets. Many felt this reality was misunderstood by white friends and colleagues.
Kavin Hemanth Kumar, who conducted peer research with Indian participants, highlighted that for many young Indians, wealth was also defined through the ability to access visas and travel. The high costs associated with applying for visas, and occasionally traveling back to their home country, was a feature of how Indian participants described their relationship to wealth. For international students, these experiences widened the gulf they felt between themselves and peers from the Global North.
As our research continues, it will be interesting to see whether the ongoing cost-of-living crisis – which largely affects income rather than wealth – further impacts people’s perceptions of the racial wealth divide. For now, the message we’re hearing through our research is clear: the link between race and wealth is difficult to dismantle.