Sociology Mind
2011. Vol.1, No.3, 138-143
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.13017
Explaining the Causes of the Black-White Wealth Gap in the
United States
Amadu Jacky Kaba
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, Seton Hall University,
South Orange, N ew Jersey.
Received March 18th, 2011; revised April 26th, 2011; accepted May 27th, 2011.
This paper examines the issue of the Black-White wealth gap in the United States. The paper presents pertinent
data illustrating that a large gap exists in wealth accumulation between Black and Whites in the United States.
The paper presents a number of implications for the Black American population as a result of this large wealth
gap. Finally, the paper p resents the factors or causes of the large Black-White wealth gap in the United States.
Keywords: Race, United States, income, Inequality, Wealth Gap
“Wealth, what you own minus what you owe, allows people
to start a business buy a home, send children to college and
ensure an economically secure retirement.”1 Writing about the
importance of wealth, Altonji et al. (2000) point out that:
“Wealth is important in any society. It influences access to
capital for new businesses, is a source of political and social in-
fluence, and provides insurance against fluctuations in labor
market income. It influences the quality of housing, neighbor-
hoods, and schools a family has access to as well as the ability to
finance higher education” (p. 38).
Racially and ethnically the United States is the most diverse
country in the world. Individuals from all racial groups in the
world can be found in the United Sates. Within each race in the
country, there are also dozens of ethnic groups. This racial di-
versity, in addition to its massive geographic size (3.6 million
square miles), with very fertile land for agriculture has made
the U.S. the wealthiest or richest country in the world. In 2009,
for example, the buying power of Americans was $10.72
trillion (Humphreys, 2009: p. 3). In 2007, the net worth of all
Americans was $57.5 trillion (“Flow of Funds Accounts of the
United States,” 2008), 87.6% of the Gross World Products
(GWP) of $65.61 trillion in 2007. As of 2008, the Gross Do-
mestic Products of the United States was $14.44 trillion (303.8
million people in 2008). No other single country had a GDP of
more than $7.992 trillion in that same year (China, with 1.33
billion people in 2008).
In the United States, apart from Native Americans, people of
Black African descent and people of European descent are the
oldest groups, inhabiting the land together for almost 400 years
(since 1619). There are some interesting observations pertaining
to wealth of these two racial groups. One such observation is that
the longer that an ethnic group has been in the U.S. the wealthier
they are likely to become. Another observation is that within the
White or European American population in the country, the
higher the total number or proportion of an ethnic group in the
United States, the more likely that the home country or region in
Europe is economically successful. For Black Americans, how-
ever, relative to European Americans, those observations do not
hold true. In fact, the four centuries long stay of people of Black
African descent in the United States and the New World has led
to relative poverty of Black people worldwide, while the four
centuries long stay of European Americans has led to incredible
wealth accumulation and concentration for people of European
descent all over the world. The chief reason for this unusual
phenomenon is the forced enslavement of people of African de-
scent by people of European descent in the U.S. and the New
World for hundreds of years and the forced colonization of Africa
by Europeans for up to a century.
Because of this unfortunate history of people of Black African
descent discussed above, European Americans and Asian
Americans have accumulated and inherited more wealth than
Black Americans. Since the 1970s, Black Americans have made
substantial investments in their college or university education,
which in turn led them to begin to accumulate some wealth. By
2009, there were 3.238 million Black Americans (or in c ombina-
tion with another race)2 with a Bachelors degree; 1.246 million
with a Masters degree; 171,000 with a Professional degree; and
133,000 with a doctoral degree.3 However, these gains in college
degree attainment and increased incomes have not resulted in the
equal wealth accumulation with European Americans.
This paper examines the continued wealth gap between
Blacks and Whites in the United States. The paper begins with a
diagnosis by presenting various statistics showing a wealth gap
between Blacks and Whites in the past few decades. The paper
then presents some implications or consequences of this wealth
gap between Blacks and Whites in the United States. Finally, the
paper presents factors or causes of the Black-White wealth gap
2This racial categorization includes an individual who is Black or an individual
who is Black and m ixed w ith anothe r race , such a s President Ba rac k Obama.
3“Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009,” 2010, April 2010. U.S
Census Burea u. Retrieved on M ay 19, 2010 from: lation/www/socdemo/education/cps2009.html.
1 Shapiro, T. M., Meschede, T., & Sullivan, L. (2010). May, “The racial
wealth gap increases fourfold,” Research and Policy Brief. Institute on
Assets and Social Policy. The Heller School for Social Policy and Manage-
ment, Brandeis University.
A. J. KABA 139
in the United States. Let us now being by examining statistics
illustrating the Black-White wealth gap in the United States.
Wealth Gap Data between Black and White
It is useful to first explain the difference between income and
wealth. According to Oliver and Shapiro (2006):
Wealth is the total extent, at a given moment, of an individ-
ual’s accumulated assets and access to resources, and it refers to
the net value of assets (e.g. ownership of stocks, money in the
bank, real estate, business ownership, etc.) less debt held, at one
time. Wealth is anything of economic bought, sold, stocked for
future disposition, or invested to bring an economic return. In-
come refers to a flow of dollars (salaries, wages, and payments
periodically received as returns from an occupation, investment,
or government transfer, etc.) over a set period, typically one year”
(pp. 30-31).
There is a significant number of publications attempting to ex-
plain various aspects of the wealth gap between Blacks and
Whites in the United States (Altonji et al., 2000; Barsky et al.,
2002; Cagetti & De Nardi, 2008; Conley, 1999; DeVaney et al.,
2007; Gittleman & Wolff, 2000; Gottschalck, 2008; Gutter &
Fontes, 2006; JBHE, 2001, 2002, 2010; Menchik & Jianakoplos,
1997). Menchik and Jianakoplos (1997) point to studies pub-
lished in 1971, 1975, 1979, 1990 and 1992 claiming that
“…blacks hold on average between 10% and 25% of the wealth
held by whites…” (p. 428). Barsky et al. (2002) claim that:
“…depending on the data source used, white households in the
United States hold somewhere between five and ten times the net
worth of black household s” (p. 663). According to JBHE (2002),
a 1998 study claims that: “…42 percent of all American house-
holds had a net worth of more than $100,000. Only 18 percent of
black households had wealth of more than $100,0 00. In contrast,
25 percent of all American households had almost no wealth (a
net worth below $25,000). But 45 percent of all black families
had a net worth of below $10,000” (p. 23). It is reported that:
“…in 1995 the median net worth of black households was $7,073.
This was only one seve nth of the median wealth of white house-
holds, which stood at slightly more than $49,000” (JBHE, 2001:
p. 32). It is noted that “In 2007 married black families had me-
dian wealth of $46,900. For married white families, the median
wealth was close to $200,000” (JBHE, 2010: pp. 40-41). Gittle-
man and Wolff (2000) cite a 1998 study that: “…estimates the
ratio of the mean net worth f or non-Hispanic African American s
to non-Hispanic whites at 0.17 in 1995, with this fraction being
even lower when measured in terms of medians (0.12). To put
these numbers in perspective, the ratio of both the mean and me-
dian income of African American households to those for white
ones was 0.64 in 1997…” (p. 1).
According to Gutter and Fontes (2006), a 2003 study claims
that: “…the median wealth for Whites was about 6.4 times that
of Blacks; similarly, the mean wealth for Whites was between 5
and 6 times that of Blacks” (p. 64). According to Altonji et al.
(2000): “…data from the 1976 and 1978 waves of the National
Longitudinal Surveys of young men and women and find that,
on average, young black families hold only 18 percent of the
wealth of young white families, while the corresponding per-
centage for income is 64.9” (p. 38). According to Gottschalck
(2008), the median net worth and median net worth excluding
home equity of Black households in the U.S. in 2002 were
$5,446 and $1,102 respectively and $87,056 and $19,079 re-
spectively for non-Hispanic Whites (p. 13).
Shapiro et al. (2010) note that: “In 23 years, [1984 to 2007]
the racial wealth gap [between Blacks and Whites in the U.S.]
increased by $75,000 from $20,000 to $95,000….Most notable
is the large gap in wealth among the highest income whites and
blacks. By 2007, the average middle-income white household
accumulated $74,000, whereas average high-income African
Americans owned only $18,000” (pp. 1-2). Shapir o et al. (2010)
also add that: “At least 25% of African American families had
no assets at all to turn to in terms of economic hardship” (p. 1).
Even when Blacks have the same education and occupation
as Whites, research shows that they still have less wealth. Ac-
cording to Oliver and Shapiro (2006): “Examining blacks and
whites who share similar socioeconomic characteristics brings
to light persistent and vast wealth discrepancies. Take educa-
tion as one prime example: the most equality we found was
among the college educated, but even here at the pinnacle of
achievement whites control four times as much wealth as
blacks with the same degrees” (p. 8). Oliver and Shapiro (2006)
continue by attempting to explain this vast difference between
the wealth of Whites and Blacks by noting that it:
“… is not simple that blacks have inferior remunerable human
capital endowments—substandard education, job, and skills, for
example—or do not display the characteristics most associated
with higher income and wealth. We are able to demonstrate that
even when blacks and whites display similar characteristics—for
example, are on par educationally and occupationally—a potent
difference of $43,143 in home equity and financial assets still
remains. Likewise, giving the average black household the same
attributes as the average white household leaves a $25,794 racial
gap in financial assets alone.… We show that skewed access to
mortgage and housing markets and the racial valuing of
neighborhoods on the basis of segregated markets result in
enormous racial wealth disparity. Banks turn down qualified
blacks much more often for home loans than they do similarly
qualified whites. Blacks who do qualify, moreover, pay higher
interest rates on home mortgages than whites” (p. 8).
To substantiate some of the claims made by Oliver and
Shapiro, for example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in
2000, the median value of homes in the city of Camden, New
Jersey (with a Black majority of 53.3% of 79,904 people) was
$40,700, but the median value of homes in the U.S. during that
same year was $119,6004 and $170,800 for the state of New
Jersey.5 Blacks in the U.S. are also charged more for various
goods and services, such as cars and insurance. Culture might
play a role too since high earning Blacks might assist immedi-
ate and extended members of their family, which reduces their
ability to accumulate wealth. Also, because Blacks tend to be
4“Camden city, New Jersey, Fact Sheet. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved on
May 3, 2011 from:
5“New Jersey, FactS heet. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved on May 3, 2011 from:
more religious and attend church services more than Whites, a
significant proportion of them tend to donate up to ten percent
of their annual income to their churches.
These various statistics show a major wealth gap between
Blacks and Whites in the United States. What are some of the
implications of this massive wealth gap between Blacks and
Whites in the United States?
Some Implications of the Black-White Wealth
Gap in the United States
There are many implications of the Black-White wealth gap
in the United States. The lack of wealth for Black families con-
tributes to fewer Blacks with health insurance, fewer numbers
of college aged blacks enrolled in colleges and universities,
high debt burden for Black families since they are forced to go
deeper into debt to pay for college or health care. Also, because
Black Americans tend to reside in mostly majority Black com-
munities and home/property taxes are used to fund K-12 educa-
tion in the United States, Black children also receive inadequate
education. It also slows the growth of the Black population
because potential Black parents may hold off from having chil-
dren since they lack wealth. It also causes high crime rates in
Black communities due to severe poverty. The Black-White
wealth gap also slows economic progress of Black communities.
Let us examine some specific examples.
In the United States, the ages 18 to 21 are when individuals
are more likely to be enrolled in colleges or universities. Ac-
cording to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 6,762,000 Whites
alone or in combination with another race 18 - 19 years old,
50.9% were enrolled in college (undergraduate and graduate)
and of the 6,408,000 Whites alone or in combination with an-
other race6 20 - 21 years old, 49.7% were enrolled in college in
2008. For 1,431,000 Blacks alone or in combination with an-
other race7 18 - 19 years old, 36% were enrolled in college and
of 1,334,000 Blacks alone or in combination with another race
20 - 21 years old, 36.7% were enrolled in college in the U.S. in
Accord ing to a table (Table 5) in a study by Bu m and Steele
(2010) entitled: “Frequency of High Bachelor’s Degree Student
Loan Debt by Race, Dependency Status and Parent Income,
2007-08”, 36% of Whites had no debt; 19% of Blacks; 33% of
Hispanic/Latino; and 40% of Asians had no debt (p. 6). Among
individuals who earned doctorates in the United States in 2008,
Blacks had the highest level of debt: $38,586, but $21,299 for
Shapiro et al. (2010) point out that in the United States: “In
2007, one in ten African Americans owed at least $3,600, al-
most doubling their debt burden since 1984” (p. 1).
According to West and Sabol (2009), as of June 30, 2008, of
the 2,103,500 males held in local jails, state and federal prisons
in the United States, Black males (who are no more than 5% of
the total population) accounted for 846,000 (40.2%); and
Whites accounted for 712,000 (33.8%) (p. 17).
According to DeNavas-walt et al. (2009), there were 46,340,000
individuals in the United States without Health Insurance. Out of
197,159,000 non-Hispanic Whites, 21,322,000 (10.8% of non-
Hispanic Whites) were uninsured and of the 38,076,000 Blacks,
7,284,000 (19 .1% of Blacks ) we re uninsured (p . 21).
Of the 37,276,000 people below the poverty line in the United
States in 2007, 9,237,000 (24.8% of Blacks) were Black and
25,120,000 (6.7% of Whites) were White.10 Of the 12,802,000
children below the poverty line in the United States in 2007,
3,838,000 (30% of Blacks) were Black and 8,002,000 (6.2% of
Whites) were White.11 What are the causes or factors responsi-
ble for the Black-White wealth gap in the United States?
Factors or Causes of the Black-White Wealth
Gap in the United States
A significant number of factors or causes have been cited as
contributing to the Black-White wealth gap in the United States
(Altonji et al., 2000; Barsky et al., 2002; Conley, 1999; Darity
Jr., 2005; DeVaney et al., 2007; Gittleman & Wolf, 2000; Gut-
ter & Fontes, 2006; Herring, 2000; Shapiro et al., 2010). In
explaining the factors of the Black-White wealth gap in the
United States, Shapiro et al. (2010) point out that:
“The racial wealth gap results from historical and contempo-
rary factors but the disturbing four-fold increase in such a short
time [1984 to 2007] reflects public policies, such as tax cuts on
investment income and inheritances which benefit the wealthi-
est, and redistribute wealth and opportunities. Tax deductions
for home mortgages, retirement accounts, and college savings
all disproportionately benefit higher income families. At the
same time, evidence from multiple sources demonstrates the
powerful role of persistent discrimination in housing, credit,
and the labor markets. For example, African-Americans and
Hispanics were at least twice as likely to receive high-cost
home mortgages as whites with similar incomes. These reckless
high-costs loans unnecessarily impeded wealth building in mi-
nority communities and triggered the foreclosure crisis that is
wiping out the largest source of wealth for minorities” (p. 2).
According to Gittleman and Wolf (2000):
“There is also evidence of the fact that the heads of Afri-
can-American families are more likely to be unmarried and tend
to be less educated than their white counterparts, with a much
higher proportion of those who have never completed high school
and a much smaller one who have completed college….the fact
that the sample of African Americans have substantially lower
income levels, tend to be less educated, are more likely to be
6This particular classification includes individuals who are White (White could
include a person of pure European descent, Afghan, Arab, Jewish, Iranian o
Turkish) or an individual who is part White and part Black or mixed with
another racial group.
7his racial categorization includes an individual who is Black or an individual
who is Black and m ixed w ith anothe r race , such a s President Ba rac k Obama.
8“Table 1. Enrollment Status of the Population 3 Years Old and Over, by Sex,
Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Foreign-Born Parentage: 2008,”School
Enrollment--Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 2008.
2009. U.S. Census B ure a u. Retrie ve d on June 3, 2010 from :
9Fiegener, Mark K. (Project Officer). 2009, December. “Doctorate Recipients
from U.S. Universities: Summary Report 2007-2008,” Division of Science
Resources Statistics. Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sci-
ences. National Scienc e Foundation. A rlington, V irginia . T a ble 24, p. 53.
10“Table 695. People Below Poverty Level and Below 125 Percent of Poverty
Level by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1980 to 2007,” 2010. Statistical Abstract
of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved on May 21, 2010 from :
11“Table 696.Children Below Poverty Level by Race and Hispanic Origin:
1980 to 2007,” 2010. Statistical Abstract of the United States. U.S. Census
Bureau. R etrieved on May 21, 2010 from: r es_p overt y
A. J. KABA 141
unmarried and are younger on average than their white counter-
parts explains about 4/5 of the [Black-White wealth] gap” (p. 5).
In explaining the causes of the Black-White wealth gap in the
United States, Altonji et al. (2000) write:
“What explains the huge wealth gap?... We focus much of
our attention on the most obvious possibility, which is that the
wealth gap may arise because whites have higher incomes than
blacks and have marriage and fertility patterns that are more
favorable to wealth accumulation….Both savings levels and
savings rates are positively related to income. Since blacks on
average have lower incomes than whites, we would expect
blacks to have lower savings. A lower flow of savings translate
into less wealth. Similarly, the fact that blacks are less likely to
marry, have less stable marriages, and have more children im-
plies that blacks will have less wealth per household than
whites” (p. 38).
According to Gutter and Fontes (2006):
“The composition of wealth has played an important role in
understanding the racial inequality in wealth…Previous re-
search has indicated that Blacks were more likely to invest in
personal residence and less likely to invest in risky assets such
as equities that may grow and produce income…Other studies
showed that Blacks were less invested in the stock market than
Whites…This difference in asset composition has had a con-
siderable impact on net worth…” (p. 64).
Gutter and Fontes (2006) also a dd that culture, age and gender
contribute to the Black-White wealth gap in the United States (pp.
66-67). DeVaney et al. (2007) cite d the following factors as con-
tributing to the Black-White wealth gap: Symbolic Interaction
Theory, Life Cycle Hypothesis of Savings, Age, Marital Status,
Race, Income, Education, Self-employment, Credit Approval
History, Financial Institutions, Saving Behavior and Planning
Horizon, and Professional Ad vise (pp. 34-36). Acc ording to Dar-
ity Jr. (2005), the enslavement of Black Americans is a major
contributing factor to the Black-White wealth gap:
“In the U.S.A. context, blacks generally have had less accu-
mulated wealth to transfer to their next generation, thereby per-
petuating the black-white gap in net worth. Until emancipation,
90 percent of African Americans were enslaved; therefore, they
were a source of wealth for others but generally deprived of the
capacity to acquire wealth themselves…The net effect has been
to prevent the intergenerational transmission of wealth that oc-
curs at much higher rates among other ethnic/racial groups in the
U.S.A. Blacks transfer less because they have a much smaller
stock of wealth to bestow upon their offspring. Blacks have a
much smaller stock of wealth because of a sustained historical
pattern of deprivation of the capacity to accumulate property,
particularly land” (p. 146).
Another important factor that has contributed to the Black-
White wealth gap in the United States is that the Black American
population is not adequately represented in the U.S. Congress,
especially in the U.S. Senate where there is no Black member as
of June 2011. However, it is in the U.S. Congres s where la ws are
passed that benefit ethnic and racial groups and humans tend to
attempt to help their own groups first before they consider help-
ing other groups. So excluding Black representation in the U.S.
Congress, especially in the U.S. Senate contributes to the
Black-White wealth gap in the United States.
Also, compared with other racial, ethnic or cultural groups,
Black Americans not only have higher unemployment rates, but
substantial proportions of them also have jobs with very little
prestige, which leads to lower wages or salaries. For example,
as of 2008, 6,509,000 (5.2%) of Whites were unemployed in
the United States; 1,788,000 (10.1%) for Blacks; 285,000 (4%)
for Asians; and 1,678,000 (7.6%) for Hispanics.12 Nam and
Boyd (2004) present tables (Appendices A and C) in their study
showing the rank scores in prestige or status in society for hun-
dreds of jobs or professions and of racial, ethnic or cultural
groups, with a score of 100 being the highest. For example,
Dentists, Physicians and Surgeons have a perfect score of 100
(the highest level of prestige or status), but Bus drivers have a
score of 31, sewing machine operators have a score of 11 and a
score of 1 for Dishwashers. When computed by race, ethnicity,
gender or cultural groups, the mean score for Whites was 52.1;
42.4 for Blacks; 58.1 for Chinese Americans; 64.7 for Asian
Indian-Hindu Americans; 52.8 for Korean Americans; and 41.4
for American Indians (pp. 339-358). There are also structural or
institutional factors contributing to the Black-White wealth gap
and there is an additional issue of intersectionality.
Structural and Institutional Racism, and Inter-
sectionality Theory
It is important to note that while some of the examples above
point to Slavery and Jim Crow as important contributing factors
of the Black-White wealth gap in the United States, the post-Civil
Rights era has not been free from structural and institutional ra-
cism, which too continue to contribute to this gap (Gusa, 2010:
pp. 468-471; Pittman, 2010; Reynolds et al., 2010; Thompson,
2010). In addition, one needs to examine this Black-White wealth
gap in the United States through the Intersectionality Theory
(Cole, 2008; Collins, 1990; Creenshaw, 1991; Desmond &
Emirbayer, 2009; Gillman, 2007: pp. 119-120).
Thompson (2010) explains Structural racism from the point
of view of the education sector that:
“Education as a complex public ecosystem must exist,
compete, and evolve with other ecosystems including those of a
political and economic nature…. The housing and financial
ecosystems that support patterns of geographic segregation and
the exclusion and inequity of financial resources suggest that
there is a collaborative and interdependent relationship between
these ecosystems and the education ecosystem that supports
structural racism” (Quoted in the “Impact of Racism” Section).
Thompson (2010) concludes by pointing out: “… that public
education requires an investigation of structures that facilitate,
maintain, hinder, and/or prevent the demonstration of student
equity in public educational institutions” (Quoted in the
“Introduction” Section).
Pertaining to Institutional racism, Reynolds et al. (2010) point
out that: “Institutional racism is an institutionalized version of the
individual act of racism in which institutional practices and
policies are based in the belief of racial superiority of one group
over another” (p. 136). According to Thompson (2010), “Insti-
tutional racism involves those actions taken by schools and
school districts that cause negative outcomes for members of
certain groups and ensures the continuation of the privilege of
12“Table 576. Civilian Population-Employment Status by Sex, Race, and Eth-
nicity; 1970 to 2008,” 2010. Statistical Abstract of the United States. U.S.
Census Bureau. Retrieved on June 8, 2010 from:
other groups” (Quoted in the “Impact of Racism” Section”). In
higher education, for example, Black faculty members are less
likely to be awarded tenure. For example, in the fall of 2007,
there were 702,491 full-time faculty at Title IV degree granting
institutions in the U.S., with 290,581 (41.4%) with tenure;
240,911 (44.6%) for 539,646 non-Hispanic Whites with tenure;
and 13,388 (35.2%) of 37,862 (5.4% of 702,491 faculty)
non-Hispanic Blacks with tenure (Knapp et al., 2008: p. 8).
Pertaining to the Intersectionality Theory, Cole (2008) points
out that, “Intersectionality, an analytic approach that simult-
aneously considers the effects of multiple categories of social
group membership (e.g., race, class and gender) takes place at
multiple levels” (p. 222). Pastrana (2010) adds that this theory:
“… exists when multiple forms of oppression affect people,
whether as individuals or as members of a group that expe-
riences oppression (p. 55). Desmond and Emirbayer (2009) also
explain Intersectionality Theory: “… society resembled an
intricate system of crisscrossing roads—each one representing a
different social identity (e.g., race, gender, class, religion, age);
one's unique social position (or structural location) could be
identified by listing all the attributes of one’s social identity and
pinpointing the nexus (or intersection) at which all those
attributes coalesced” (p.3 49; also see Kaba, 2007: pp. 10-22).
This paper has presented various statistics showing a rela-
tively large wealth gap between Blacks and Whites in the United
States. By 2007, the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites in
the United States had reached $95,000. There are many implica-
tions as a result of this large Black-White wealth gap in the
United States. Among the implications mentioned are lack of
adequate K-12 education funding in majority Black communi-
ties, high poverty rates for Blacks, high prison rates for Black
males, high debt rates for Blacks and high number of uninsured
Blacks in the United States. Finally, the paper presents a number
of factors or causes of the Black-White wealth gap in the United
States. Among the factors presented are slavery and Jim Crow,
structural and institutional racism, tax policies favoring the rich
(most of whom are White), age, education, investment strategy,
and income.
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