Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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It's well known that America's wealthiest have been getting richer at the expense of the middle class. But the trend looks even starker when you look at the racial aspects. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the combined wealth of those on the Forbes 400 list of America's richest dwarfs that of the nation's entire black or Latino populations.

The report found that the 100 richest US citizens control about as much wealth as all of the nation's 42 million African Americans. The total wealth of the nation's 55 million Latinos stacks up to that of the 186 richest Americans.

The average white family today has net assets of $141,900, compared with just $11,000 for black families.

This can be explained in part by the rapid erosion of the black and Latino middle classes. African Americans' net worth relative to whites has fallen by more than half since 2000: The average white family today has net assets of $141,900, compared with just $11,000 for black families—about the same paltry sum as back in 1985. Latinos have seen similar declines in net worth relative to whites.

There are many reasons for this slide: Black and Latino families were disproportionately exposed to risky subprime mortgages, had smaller amounts of inherited wealth, and were more susceptible to job and wage cuts during the Great Recession. And because these families are less likely than white families to own homes and stocks, they haven't benefited as much from the subsequent recovery.

America's stark inequality problem is evident in the Forbes 400 itself. Blacks and Latinos make up a combined 29 percent of the population but account for less than 2 percent of the Forbes list. Oprah Winfrey and the tech investor Robert Smith are the sole African Americans on the list, and just five on the list have Latino backgrounds. (They are Miami condo king Jorge Perez, billboard billionaire Arturo Moreno, and three heirs of the late Colombian beer magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a major owner of the SABMiller empire.)

The dearth of black and Latino billionaires in the United States defies easy explanations, but one big factor may be Silicon Valley. The tech industry has minted more billionaires in recent years than any other sector of the economy. It also has a deeply entrenched diversity problem. According to census data, the proportion of Hispanic tech workers in Silicon Valley actually declined from 5 percent in 2000 to 4 percent in 2010—and the proportion of black techies fell from 3 percent to 2 percent. The Valley has begun to take diversity a little more seriously, but it could be another generation or more before it produces a black Mark Zuckerberg or a Latino Sergey Brin.

More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for the ouster of Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Roseberg after he flatly rejected the idea that smoking marijuana could have medical benefits. "What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal—because it's not," Rosenberg said during a press briefing earlier this month. "We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don't call it medicine—that is a joke."

In response, a Change.org petition with more than 106,000 signatures is calling upon President Barack Obama to "fire Chuck Rosenberg and appoint a new DEA administrator who will respect science, medicine, patients, and voters."

Rosenberg is clearly wrong, yet it's not entirely inaccurate to call medical marijuana a joke—in California at least.

Roseberg need not look far to find reputable studies documenting the medical value of marijuana, even in its whole-plant, smoked form. As Vox's German Lopez points out, a comprehensive review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that pot can effectively treat chronic pain and muscle spasticity.

Still, it's not entirely inaccurate to call medical marijuana a joke—at least in California, the state with the nation's most lax medical marijuana law. When I visited a "marijuana doctor" in San Francisco a few years ago, it took me less than 15 minutes to get a pot card for—wait for it—"writer's cramp." Meanwhile, my wife waited for days before being denied a pot recommendation from our HMO, Kaiser Permanente, despite suffering from a flare-up of actual arthritis. While she sat at home popping Advils, I headed to the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo, where my card got me into a "patient consumption area" staffed by busty women in tight-fitting nurse outfits and a dispensary worker with a nametag that read, "Dr. Herb Smoker, MD."

But that sort of irony wasn't what Rosenberg was talking about. He seems to believe that because marijuana is popular as a recreational drug, it can't  also be real medicine. Clearly, Dr. Herb Smoker isn't the only medical professional who disagrees.

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