(Amy Cavenaile/The Washington Post; iStock)

It's a fact that people of color are worse off than white Americans in all kinds of ways, but there is little agreement on why. Some see those disparities as a consequence of racial discrimination in schools, the courts and the workplace, both in the past and present. Others argue that economic inequalities are really the cause, and that public policy should help the poor no matter their race or ethnicity. When it comes to affirmative action in college admissions, for example, many say that children from poor, white families should receive preferential treatment, as well.

In some ways, though, discrimination against people of color is more complicated and fundamental than economic inequality. A stark new finding epitomizes that reality: In recent decades, rich black kids have been more likely to go to prison than poor white kids.

"Race trumps class, at least when it comes to incarceration," said Darrick Hamilton of the New School, one of the researchers who produced the study.

He and his colleagues, Khaing Zaw and William Darity of Duke University, examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national study that began in 1979 and followed a group of young people into adulthood and middle age. The participants were asked about their assets and debts, and interviewers also noted their type of residence, including whether they were in a jail or prison.

The researchers grouped participants in the survey by their race and their household wealth as of 1985 and then looked back through the data to see how many people in each group ultimately went to prison. Participants who were briefly locked up between interviews might not be included in their calculations of the share who were eventually incarcerated.

About 2.7 percent of the poorest white young people —  those whose household wealth was in the poorest 10th of the distribution in 1985, when they were between 20 and 28 years old — ultimately went to prison. In the next 10th, 3.1 percent ultimately went to prison.

The households of young people in both of these groups had more debts than assets. In other words, their wealth was negative. All the same, their chances of being imprisoned were far less than those of black youth from much more affluent circumstances.

About 10 percent of affluent black youths in 1985 would eventually go to prison. Only the very wealthiest black youth —  those whose household wealth in 1985 exceeded $69,000 in 2012 dollars — had a better chance of avoiding prison than the poorest white youth. Among black young people in this group, 2.4 percent were incarcerated.

Hispanic participants who were less affluent in 1985 were more likely to be eventually incarcerated than their white peers with similar wealth, but less likely than black participants.


 

What's more, even young black people who follow the rules and are never incarcerated are less likely than similar white people to accumulate wealth as they get older. As of 2012, the median household wealth of black participants in the study who had never been incarcerated at some point in their lives was $16,200. Those who had been incarcerated had zero wealth at the median.

Among white participants who had never been incarcerated, however, median household wealth was $192,000 by 2012. The median white participant who had been incarcerated reported wealth of $5,000.

[Read more: The law was supposed to reduce discrimination, but it made hiring more racially biased]

It could be that the white participants in the study still had other advantages over their black peers, even if they had been incarcerated. Perhaps they went to better schools, or lived in areas where it was easier to find work. At the same time, another reason for the disparity between black and white wealth could be that employers make negative inferences about black workers' pasts, even those who have never been to prison.

In 2001, for example, economist Harry Holzer and his colleagues found that employers who actually checked applicants' criminal histories were much more likely to hire black men. Similarly, recent research shows that employers who are barred from checking credit histories are less likely to take on black workers.

In a way, untangling economic and racial inequalities is a chicken-and-egg problem. In criminal justice, though, you can't just explain away the disproportionate rates at which black and Hispanic youths end up in prison by pointing out that many people of color did not grow up with the same economic advantages as their white peers.

Correction: A previous version of the chart in this story incorrectly identified the deciles. They are wealth deciles.