Study Finds White People Wildly Overestimate Racial Economic Equality

By Kenrya Rankin Sep 19, 2017

A new study from researchers at Yale University found that Americans grossly overestimate the nation’s progress toward achieving economic equality. And while both Black and White people surveyed had a skewed perception, wealthy White people held the most distorted view.

Per the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, for every $100 of wealth a White family accumulates, their Black counterpart has just $5.04. And the average Black household makes just $57.03 for every $100 that flows into a White household. It’s a gap that is nearly identical to the one researchers observed 50 years ago, but the study, titled “Americans Misperceive Racial Economic Equality,” found that the average estimate of the current level of equality across races was about 25 percent better than reality. Among Black participants, the misperception was largely driven by “greater belief in a just world and social network racial diversity.” Meanwhile, Whites tend to overestimate past racial economic equality and not factor in the current impact of structural racism.

Researchers asked 1,377 Black and White Americans—most of whom make either less than $40,001 or more than $100,000—to estimate the fiscal difference between the average Black and White person in five areas at specific points in time in the past (they ranged from 1947 to 1979) and the present (from 2010 to 2015). The areas were annual income, accumulated wealth, employer-provided benefits, hourly wages of college graduates and hourly wages for high school graduates. They were also prompted to explain their beliefs about fairness via questions about their views on justice, the racial makeup of their online social networks, and the diversity of their workplace and past and current neighborhoods.

Two follow-up experiments delved into why White participants think things are more equitable that reality proves. They were first asked to draw similarities between their families and a Black family with the same talents and dreams. Then they were prompted to think about an “alternative United States” where “discrimination based on race still exists in law enforcement, voting rights, and educational and employment decisions, rather than what they had thought of when generating their original estimates.” The first resulted in an even larger overestimation of equality, while the second resulted in more accurate guesses.

From the study:

An important, often overlooked, facet of economic inequality in the United States is that it is a product of historical and present-day forms of racism—labor, housing and other policies and practices—that have systematically disadvantaged racial/ethnic minorities in their pursuit of economic opportunities. One result of these historical and ongoing forces is a vast and persistent economic disparity between Black and White families in the United States, of which Americans seem largely unaware. The present research documented both the pervasiveness and magnitude of this general lack of awareness and relevant socio-structural correlates and began to explore the psychological processes and motives that promote or undermine awareness and/or acknowledgment of societal racial economic inequality.

“Our findings suggest that Americans tend to be too optimistic about the scope of racial progress in the United States, specifically in the domain of economic outcomes,” report coauthor Jennifer A. Richeson said in a YaleNews article about the study, which was released yesterday (September 18). “Unfounded optimism of this sort is likely to hinder efforts to reduce racial economic inequality, or even discover its causes. People will not attempt to solve problems that they are either unaware of or believe do not exist.”

Read the full study via the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.