Political momentum on the left for such an effort must face the reality of legal obstacles, particularly from the Supreme Court.Proponents concerned about the wealth gap instead must come up with policies that have the effect of disproportionately building wealth for African-Americans, without singling them out.
“There are ways that you can craft legislation that essentially gets at this effect,” Ms. Baradaran said. “Look at how much legislation we have that gets at the opposite effect.”
Policies like the mortgage interest deduction, for example, disproportionately benefit white families, who are more likely to own homes. So do tax advantages for the rich, who are more likely to be white. Even federal investments in seemingly race-neutral infrastructure like the Interstate Highway System had this effect by enabling the development of all-white suburbs in an era of legal discrimination.
Wealth-building proposals today are trying to engineer a similar if opposite outcome. That makes the details thorny.
“The first and most efficient approach is targeting relief to the people who were targeted with discrimination,” said Dorothy Brown, a law professor at Emory University. “If we can’t get there, then we have to go to next best.”
Ms. Warren’s strategy, she said, is a clever workaround. Rather than specifying African-Americans, Ms. Warren’s bill would target specific neighborhoods where African-Americans harmed by the legacy of lending discrimination are likely to live.
Other researchers argue that a program based on neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s would be too narrow; most African-Americans who buy homes aren’t purchasing in such neighborhoods today (and in some cities, middle-income whites are).
But the kind of neighborhood criteria Ms. Warren has in mind could be one model. Ms. Brown proposes identifying neighborhoods with the least household wealth and allowing tax breaks associated with homeownership, like the mortgage deduction, only to people who live there.
Mr. Booker’s proposal would give $1,000 in a government savings fund to every newborn in America, for use later in adulthood. But the government would seed more money into that fund each year according to a family’s income, giving the most to children in the poorest families. That money could then be spent in adulthood on education, buying a home or starting a business.
“Ultimately, assets give people agency in their lives,” said Darrick Hamilton, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. His work on the baby bonds concept informed Mr. Booker’s proposal. “Assets give people the ability to make decisions,” he said, “to have choice and have freedom and self-determination.”