February 16, 2006
Book Review: Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity
by Bill Baue
The revised and updated edition of this text (originally published in 2000) examines how excessive
executive compensation contributes to the widening gulf between rich and poor.
While the spotlight is currently shining on executive compensation, with SEC regulation and Congressional legislation proposals
on the table, this attention may obscure the flip-side of this economic equation--namely the
increasing disparity between rich and poor. The revised and updated edition of Economic Apartheid in America: A
Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity (The New Press, 2005) seeks to illuminate understanding of
this broader social context.
The book's title harnesses significant power by
applying the term "apartheid"--the system of racial segregation (with profound economic impacts)
associated with South Africa--to the current situation in the US. In so doing, authors Felice
Yeskel and Chuck Collins (who co-founded United for a Fair Economy, or UFE) draw on the moral authority of the anti-apartheid movement
that effectively toppled the racist and classist regime in South Africa in the 1990s.
victory did not happen overnight, however, and victory in the struggle against economic apartheid
is receding instead of nearing.
"Since the first edition of Economic Apartheid in
America was published in 2000, a lot has changed--but a lot has stayed the same," write Dr.
Yeskel and Mr. Collins. "The problem of growing wage and wealth inequality has only worsened after
a slight improvement at the end of the 1990s."
Perhaps the most important statistical
analysis in the book illustrates disparity in real family income growth by quintiles (or 20 percent
segments of the population) from 1979 to 2003. The lowest quintile (those earning under $24,100 a
year) decreased two percent and the highest (earning $98,200 and up) gained more than 50
percent, according to US Census Bureau statistics.
The book presents this information to
provoke further contemplation, analysis, and action, but does not presume to assess these issues
exhaustively. In calling the book a "primer," Dr. Yeskel and Mr. Collins acknowledge the
limitations of the text, noting the availability of numerous in-depth studies on economic
"This book attempts to consolidate and summarize many of them; we attempt to
explain economics in an understandable and user-friendly way," they write, and later admit other
limitations. "Because this book looks primarily at problems through the lens of class, it is
limited in its explanation of the fundamental intersection between race, gender, and economic
That said, the book by no means ignores the overlapping dynamics of race,
gender, and class as they are impacted by economic inequality. Case in point: Dr. Yeskel and Mr.
Collins break down the impacts by race and gender as well.
"For example, the lowest fifth
of black income earners saw their incomes fall 9.5 percent between 1979 and 1997," they write.
"Meanwhile, the wealthiest fifth of black income earners saw their incomes go up 21.4 percent . . .
"As sociologist William Julius Wilson points out, '. . . while income inequality has
widened generally in America . . ., the divide is even more dramatic among African Americans,'" the
book states, and then addresses issues on the gap between male and female income.
not only identifies its own limitations, but also readers can extrapolate from its implications to
identify limitations in the broader struggle against economic inequality. For example, while the
socially responsible investing (SRI) community played an important role in the anti-apartheid
movement and continues to advocate for economic equality (for example through pay disparity
resolutions such as the one filed at Wal-Mart), the book reveals how
investment is largely inaccessible to those on the lower half of the economic ladder. A stark
graph shows how the top ten percent in terms of household wealth in the US owns 84 percent of
stocks and mutual funds, while the bottom 50 percent in household wealth own a mere one
percent of stocks and mutual funds--an exceedingly thin slice of the pie!
words, the majority of American households--those at the bottom of the economic ladder--effectively
have no access to wealth-building through the stock market. Neither do they have access to using
shareownership to advocate for the advancement of economic equality, leaving it up to those on the
upper half of the economic ladder to promote it for the benefit of those further down. And of
course SRI practitioners represent only a small slice of the investment community.
addition to identifying the root causes of the problem of economic inequality, the book also
identifies potential solutions. For example, a section of the final chapter focuses on "reining in
corporate power," and lists shareholder actions, SRI, and democratizing corporations, as well as
structural changes such as eliminating the legal status of corporate personhood.