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I can imagine the right-wing talk show hosts, even without tuning in.

I could write the script the minute the report came out the other day showing that the wealth gap between whites and minorities has increased and that blacks -- unlike whites or Hispanics -- actually saw their net worth decline from 1996 to 2002.

The report was socioeconomic manna to those eager to point to the poor personal choices by blacks who would rather buy frivolous stuff than save or invest.

It conjures up a compelling image: A Jheri-curled guy in gold jewelry, drinking a 40-ounce and smoking a cigarette, while watching his big-screen TV.

There's just one problem: Anyone who thinks that this explains the wealth gap would be wrong -- on all five counts.

The Jheri-curl? Black households average about $40 per year on hair-care products, compared with $54 for whites.

Jewelry? Blacks spend about $58 per year, compared with $150 for whites.

Beer and ale? Black households average $75, compared with $108 for whites.

Smokes? Blacks spend $195 on cigarettes, compared with $284 for whites.

And the plasma, flat-screen TV? Blacks average $65 on television sets, compared with $71 for whites.

The data comes from the 2001 book "Best Customers: Demographics of Consumer Demand" and is based on the federal government's Consumer Expenditure Survey. Given what the recession has done to blacks, the gaps are probably even larger today.

In other words, you can't explain why whites' median net worth of $88,651 is 14 times that of blacks' -- and 11 times that of Hispanics' -- by pointing simply to spending habits.

"It's really a stereotype that says behavior, or consumptive behavior, contributes to this," said Dalton Conley, author of "Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America."

So what does explain the wealth gap? As the name of Conley's book implies, it's a legacy of U.S. social policy, such as guaranteeing low-interest housing loans for whites to develop the suburbs while building inner-city high-rises for blacks to rent. That meant a generation of whites built up equity, while blacks couldn't.

Years later, that meant whites had something to borrow against to put their kids through college; blacks didn't.

Compound that by the fact that whites, by virtue of sheer numbers, dictate housing values. The law of supply and demand means that wherever whites want to live, values go up, and vice versa, Conley has noted. And since school funding is tied to property values, it means whites get the best education -- which helps perpetuate their advantages. And we haven't even talked about redlining or job discrimination.

With black savings rates already comparable to those of whites, Conley fears that it will take something dramatic -- such as reparations -- to close the wealth gap. But with most whites unwilling to even acknowledge the real reasons behind the gap, I wouldn't bet my inheritance on that.

One step is more self-help, the philosophy that infuses the Black Capital Network's annual Economic Empowerment Conference, being held Saturday at the Buffalo Marriott. But even that requires access to capital, which typically requires the equity that blacks as a group don't have to begin with. And the gap perpetuates itself.

None of that is to excuse the poor choices some blacks make. After all, as Avis learned, when you're No. 2, you need to try harder -- and be smarter.

However, focusing on that misses the bigger picture. The wealth gap didn't arise by accident; it resulted from conscious social policy. And it will be closed only through conscious social policy.

But how much have you heard about that during this presidential campaign?


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