Bankruptcy law in the United States is race-neutral on its face but, in practice, race matters in bankruptcy outcomes. Our original research provides an empirical look at how the facially neutral laws that allow debtors to retain assets in bankruptcy cases result in disparate outcomes for Black and white debtors. Racial differences in asset retention in bankruptcy cases play a role in perpetuating wealth inequality between Black and white debtors.

Existing bankruptcy data lacks individual-level characteristics such as race, which inhibits researchers’ ability to adequately assess biases or unintended consequences of laws and policies on subsets of the population. Thus, we construct a novel data set using bankruptcy data from Washington D.C. in 2011 and imputing race. The data demonstrates that facially race-neutral bankruptcy laws contribute to racially disparate outcomes by allowing white debtors to keep larger amounts of both personal and real property.

First, exemption laws allow every bankruptcy filer to retain some personal property even if they do not repay their creditors in full. At the median, white filers in the District of Columbia claimed $10,150 in exemptions, relative to $8,359 for Black filers. In other words, the median white filer kept roughly $1,800 more of their property than Black filers, despite reporting similar overall personal property values.

Second, exemption laws allow every bankruptcy filer to retain some (or all) equity in their home. Unlike personal property, where Black and white debtors enter bankruptcy with about the same amount of property, white debtors enter bankruptcy with more home equity than Black debtors ($585,000 compared with $251,600 at the median). Unsurprisingly, then, white debtors also leave bankruptcy with more home equity (e.g., the median Black filer retains roughly 80% less in home equity than white filers).

Although bankruptcy laws do not inflate the value of white filers’ personal or real property values relative to Black debtors, our exemption rules contribute to white debtors leaving bankruptcy with greater wealth than Black debtors. By protecting certain assets like home equity, which are unevenly distributed in our sample across Black and white debtors, bankruptcy law appears to play a role in perpetuating wealth inequality. Even where assets are more evenly distributed, as personal property was in our sample, bankruptcy law leaves Black debtors with a less robust “fresh start” than white debtors.