Job seekers talk to employers at a job fair at the Washington Convention Center last year. (Jessica Contrera/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Another Labor Day, come and gone. But that old payday mystery lingers.

Who or what is responsible for the persistent wage gap between blacks and whites?

Nearly 50 years of economic studies and reports have noted the problem, but none has definitively identified a culprit. And while that might not matter to those on the fatted side of the paycheck equation, those of us on the leaner end would like to know whether we are being shortchanged, why and by whom.

From the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, we learned last year that the wage gap between blacks and whites grew significantly between 1979 and 2016 — with the earnings of black men dropping from 80 percent to 70 percent of white men. For black women, earnings dropped from 95 percent to 82 percent of white women.

The best that the bank could offer by way of a culprit was to note that the gaps “cannot be fully explained by differences in age, education, job type, or location. Especially troubling is the growing unexplained portion of the divergence in earnings for blacks relative to whites.”

Could that unexplained portion be differences in opportunity, school quality or discrimination? Whatever it is, in 1979 it accounted for about 40 percent of the earnings gap, the report said. By 2016, unexplained factors accounted for nearly half of the earnings gap.

Enough of that.

On occasion, we have managed to hold people accountable if they discriminate on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. Those who have called the police on black people for napping or picnicking have found themselves, at minimum, trending as the latest hashtag. Politicians caught using racist dog whistles get called out. And rightfully so.

But none of them control America’s financial system.

The loss of income doesn’t just hurt your feelings. It cuts into your life chances, undermines family stability, makes a mockery of civil rights law, turns the American Dream into a nightmare echoing a national history of racial exploitation, starting with slavery.

Who is responsible for that?

How did it come about that a black man would get $18 per hour while a white man makes $25 per hour for doing the same work? Or that a black woman gets $16 when a white woman gets $20?

A study by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the U.S. Census Bureau, published earlier this year, noted that “the sources of these disparities have been heavily studied and debated, with proposed explanations ranging from residential segregation . . . and discrimination to differences in family structure . . . and even genetics.”

You can cut the genetics bunk totally and seriously doubt that residential segregation or family structure is the cause for such disparity.

The study, called “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States,” found that in 99 percent of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys grow up to earn less than white boys who are raised in families with comparable income. Even black boys who come from wealthy families, living on the same block as their white counterparts, earn less as adults than white boys with similar upbringings.

“When we compare the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth and education, we continue to find that the black men still have substantially lower incomes in adulthood,” the report said.

Boys born into high-income black families were much more likely to experience downward economic mobility than similarly situated whites across generations, the study said. A black child born to parents in the top 20 percent of the income distribution was as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as he was to remain in the top. But white boys were nearly five times as likely to remain in the top quintile as they were to fall to the bottom.

On the bright side, the study found, neighborhoods that have higher rates of upward mobility for black boys and relatively small black-white gaps tend to have three characteristics: low poverty rates, ample numbers of black fathers and low levels of racial bias among whites.

The study pointed to the Washington area as having neighborhoods that fit the bill.

So, after 50 years of research, we have a solution if not an outright culprit in the racial pay gap mystery: Get married and move to Silver Spring.

Somehow, come next Labor Day, I think we’ll still be coming up a dollar short.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.