Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

Economic Inequality in America


America has a complicated problem of economic inequality for people of color that dates back to slavery. According to the Pew Research Center, the black-white income gap in the US has persisted over time. In 2018 the median black household income was 61% of the median of white households. Promoting asset transfer between generations, intergenerational wealth, is a critical piece to the puzzle of closing the wealth gap.

Renowned author and journalist Rochelle Riley discusses how wealth disparity relates to the estates and trusts practice and how to effectuate change to diminish the racial wealth gap. Ms. Riley is best known for “The Burden,” a collection of essays exploring the enduring impact of slavery and post-slavery discrimination on African Americans. She is a crusader for government accountability and improved race relations. ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry hosts Ms. Riley in this timely video.

Renowned author and journalist Rochelle Riley


Rochelle Riley’s website — Additional information about the speaker.

Networking Organizations:

Other Resources:



ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: America has a complicated problem of economic inequality for people of color that dates back to slavery. While laws, customs and practices did not place barriers on white people to build wealth over generations for hundreds of years, communities of color were prevented from accumulating wealth and passing it from one generation to another due to systemic racism. There is a straight line between slavery and Jim Crow to the wealth gap in our society today. Let’s do something about that now by sharing how important it is to create estate plans and promote asset transfer between generations.

The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, ACTEC, has produced a video series: Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future. The purpose of this video series is to uncover and understand the roadblocks to equitable inclusion and to empower ourselves and others to develop solutions and take action for the betterment of our practices and society at large.

In this first video of the series, ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry and author Rochelle Riley share a personal discussion around the wealth gap in America. They discuss how to encourage a critical path to financial knowledge and how each of us can diversify our lives and engage positively in our country’s issues.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: I am pleased to introduce Ms. Rochelle Riley. Ms. Riley is the Director of Arts and Culture for the city of Detroit, and for 19 years she was a nationally syndicated columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Her columns were part of the entry that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

Rochelle Riley: Thank you so much, Stephanie, for having me. I’m so thrilled to be here to talk about things that are important that we don’t always talk about as African Americans and as someone who has pivoted to a different career, I want to make sure that I’m paying attention to my future and my post future. I’m just glad to be a part of this.

Present-Day Impacts of Slavery on African Americans

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Of course. Thank you for being here, Rochelle. So, your book “The Burdon” explores the present impact on African Americans of not just slavery but also post-slavery discrimination. This discrimination has, as we know, cut off African Americans from the opportunities to accumulate wealth in this country; and it’s evident in statistics regarding the wealth gap in our country, and it’s also very present in the context of estate planning. I’m going to ask you to share with us some of those statistics about the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans. Before I do that, though, I just want to share with you my own experience. I can tell you that I’m an estate planning attorney; I’ve been practicing for 16 years, and I am the only African-American attorney at my firm. I’d been practicing for 14 years before I ever practiced with another African American attorney. I can also tell you that my firm has been around for over forty years, and of the thousands of estate planning clients that we have, maybe one percent of those, probably less, are African American. So just that alone shows me that there has to be a wealth gap.

So, if you could just give us a little bit about those statistics, I think it would be really helpful.

Statistics Regarding the Wealth Gap in America

Rochelle Riley: I’m happy to do that, but one of the first statistics I want to give you is to talk about labor. I think what people don’t think about when we talk about slavery, post-slavery and the continuing discrimination through decades in different incarnations – Jim Crow, redlining, a civil rights movement that saw, literally, people try to desegregate public schools on the backs of children.

There were all types of things that were going on throughout all of these things, but the one that I want to talk about is the auto industry. I’m here in Detroit, and you know, we still have a big three. They’re not the top three but the big three auto companies – GM, Fiat/Chrysler, and Ford. They’re expected to add between 800 million and a billion dollars to their balance sheets between now and 2023. That’s roughly for their 133,000 workers. That’s labor.

So, I need people to understand that when we talk about the fact that this country was built with free labor, that was worth trillions of dollars and no wealth and that there was absolutely nothing that African Americans were able to gain from this, not just monetarily but even just the recognition that it happened. One of the things that really struck me as I was doing this research was about what we have seen just in the past half-century. That means after that civil rights movement that Martin Luther King worked so hard on and gave his life to. Over the last century, Black Americans have made substantial social and economic progress, but still, we are not rising. We’re not rising fast enough. We’re not rising very much.

In 1978 – Lord, this was way back – black households in the United States earned $0.59 for every $1.00 of income that whites earned – $0.59. In 2019, the median household black income earned $0.61 for every $1.00 in median income by white households.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: That’s not much progress.

Rochelle Riley: 1978 to 2019, $0.59 to $0.61! Not only is that ridiculous, but it is criminal.

I think that one of the things that we don’t pay attention to is the fact that in literally every single category, black people are worse off – in college education, in the ability to get jobs that pay a certain amount of money. Three times the number of black kids who live in poverty aren’t able to get a good education compared to white kids.

I mean the numbers – I don’t think people pay attention to the numbers as much because they don’t see people. But imagine a black kid knowing this, knowing that they’re not going to be able to go as far as a white kid. They already know that. So, then they grow up to be somebody who doesn’t think that what they have done in life is worth an estate. They grow up thinking that there is a limit to everything that they can do. That is the most heartbreaking thing to me.

Importance of an Estate Plan and Will for Black Families

So, one of the things that I’m hoping to do is to make people understand their worth – the worth of their vote, the worth of their work – and making sure they understand that you don’t only just plan for college, you don’t only just plan for your retirement, but you want to make sure that you don’t leave a mess for your family.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Right.

Rochelle Riley: I’m here in Detroit, where we went through the whole Aretha Franklin, you know, saga. Beautiful woman. Queen of soul. One of my favorite people. I adored her. Well, she literally – initially, they thought she did not leave a will. Then they started to find different wills, including one in a couch. So, of course, this has now been in the courts. The family’s in disarray. They’re at each other. It’s just – it’s the kind of thing that, you don’t do it for you. You do it for the people you’re leaving behind.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Right.

Rochelle Riley: So, I think that if people start to understand that, we will never change the wealth gap until we change the racial gap, and we will never do that until we acknowledge that it’s there.

How Can Individuals Address the Wealth Gap?

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: So, to that point, we know that we haven’t, for some reason, been able to make a lot of progress over many years. And we are now at a point in this country, I think, where this issue is on top of mind for so many people, and so many are ready to take action and just do something. So many people are ready to act. What can we be thinking about? What can we be doing right now to address some of these issues?

Rochelle Riley: Well, we are watching some of it happen. And every time I see an announcement, I say, “Thank you, George Floyd.” Just like Crispus Attucks, an African American was the first casualty of the American Revolution. George Floyd was the first casualty because of his murder in this revolution that is seeing a change globally.

There are people who literally did not have an opportunity, despite their brilliance to do things. Now they’re being put in charge of television companies. They are being put in charge of movie studios. They are being put in charge of corporate companies. And on top of that, you’ve got people who are now being able to serve on corporate boards who used to not be able to go into the room. You’ve got journalists who are able to do things that literally were not open to them before. There are black anchors on every television network almost in the country, and it’s going to get even better. So, I think that what you’re seeing is there is a ripe opportunity here for change if we grab it. You know, carpe diem. We have to make sure that we do not lose this moment.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Yes. You’re absolutely right. We do. We have to seize the day. I think that we have to capitalize on all of this enthusiasm that folks are feeling these days. The fact that people are ready to do the hard work that it is going to take. We didn’t get here overnight, and this change is not going to come overnight. I think that people have to really settle into the idea that this is going to be a lot of hard work and it’s going to take time.

Rochelle Riley: I think one of the things that people tend to be afraid of is that big things require big movements and a lot of work. And they think that it’s not possible to overcome, that it’s not possible to do. Every single thing that has ever happened that has ever happened started with one person. Nancy Brinker’s sister, literally, was dying of breast cancer. Her sister decided, you know what? I’m going to do something in her honor, and she started, literally, Race for the Cure. Billions of dollars in cancer research. It started because this sister said, I’m going to do something in my sister’s honor.

That happens in black families and black churches, in black neighborhoods all the time. People think that you can’t have a Black Wall Street again. There are people who not necessarily, said it shouldn’t happen, just said it couldn’t happen. I think they’re wrong on both fronts. Not only can it happen, but it should, and not just because we’ve seen it happen with Greenwood District in Tulsa, but because we know that there are people who are capable of it. I think that what we have had in this country is black people felt that they have to stay in their place, stay in their lane, and not do too much, and we can’t let that continue to dictate who we are and how we do things.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Right. And I love your perspective on – each one of us is able to effect change even in our small space, and that could lead to something huge. You just don’t know, and that’s why it’s ever so important for us each to be thinking of ways that we can be the change that we want to see. Right?

Rochelle Riley: That’s how it will work; that’s the only way that it will work. And if we decide that every single one of us will do something – it’s just like the butterfly effect – if you’ve got a thousand people and each one says I’m going to do something. All of a sudden, that’s a thousand somethings. That’s how elections are won. That’s how companies are changed. That’s how districts are formed. That’s how education is changed, which we have to do in this country. But it has to start with everybody getting to the point where they no longer ask, who’s going to do this or who’s coming? Dr. King is not coming back. People say, well, who’s the leader? Who’s going to do it? I look right at them and say, “You are.”

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: And honestly, thinking of it that way makes it feel less overwhelming.

Rochelle Riley: I think that anything that we want to do can be done, and if we stop looking at the big problem and look at our piece of it. I just finished doing a jigsaw puzzle – my first and last one. It was a gift, and it was a thousand pieces. It’s actually a thousand and one. I put it together, and there’s this one little orange cloverleaf that doesn’t go anywhere on it. I’m going to literally laminate it and wear it as a neckless. It was just one piece at a time. So, if you figure out what your little part of the puzzle is so that we can get to the point where we get rid of the racial strife, at least our economic hardship, that will continue to keep America from being all it can be, keep our cities from being all they can be, we can do anything.

What Can People Do to Integrate Their Lives?

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Absolutely. And along those same lines, Rochelle, what are some specific actions that folks can take right now to help move things along in a positive direction?

Rochelle Riley: Well, I can tell you the very first thing is to diversify your life. If you are an estate planner, if you are an attorney and all of your clients are white, or maybe one client is black, and everybody else is white, and you want to change that, then there are ways to reach out that aren’t even that hard. Go and visit a black church. Go to a black-owned restaurant. Talk to people that you know who are people of color and say- you know what, I’d like to reach out more. Who are some of the people I might be able to talk to? Can you help me arrange a workshop or a discussion, or just a conversation? Life has been changed for Americans in the basements of, you know, community centers and rec halls. But that’s the first thing – is make sure that you’re bringing into your life some people who have a different perspective that can learn from you.

There’s one other thing that you can do, and that’s to get to know some of the groups, quite frankly, that black people live by – Jack and Jill, sororities and fraternities, mom groups. There are all types of, you know, They’re all types of groups of folks who get together because – not that they want to be segregated, but that they want to reach out and support each other in ways that have not always been true in this country for folks. You know, find some of those groups and say, you know – I’d like to help you plan your life, and I’d like to make sure that after your life, your family is taken care of. You don’t want to leave any mess.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Right. And I think you’re right. As you find those groups and you open your circle and introduce new and different and diverse people into that circle organically, you know, there’s a difference. You can see the tangible difference in your life and your professional life, who your clients are, what they look like, your personal life. Who are your friends going forward? But it does have to be, I think like you say, a very intentional action.

Rochelle Riley: You can’t wait for an invitation. And here’s the most amazing thing – your life is going to be better.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Absolutely.

Rochelle Riley: You will be told by some of the people that you meet, people that you never would have met if you hadn’t been intentional and decided I’m going to do this.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: I love it. I love it. So inspirational. Thank you so much, Rochelle.

Conclusion of Economic Inequality in American

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: Rochelle and Stephanie touched on some serious issues and offered recommendations. We can all take these recommendations to diversify our network and reduce wealth inequity. We heard that creating and maintaining estate planning documents such as a will are critical to ensuring that wealth is transferred smoothly and successfully. ACTEC and I hope you take a moment and make an “intentional action.” Update your estate plan and plan to include people of color in your workforce and client base. Please visit for a list of resources and additional topics.

Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

ACTEC’s diversity, equity, and inclusivity video series analyzes issues surrounding racism, sexism, and discrimination in all its forms to combat inequality.