Economic Inequality Through a Racial Lens

Perceptions that racial economic inequality have disappeared are glaringly wrong, which explains part of the public debate disconnect that it has disappeared.

Perceptions that racial economic inequality have disappeared are glaringly wrong, which explains part of the public debate disconnect that it has disappeared.

Racial bias is generally viewed through the lens of race. A new Yale University study shows wealthy white people view racial equality is a fact, despite data and perceptions of low-income blacks that suggests quite the opposite.

Analyzing US Census data, Yale researchers found African Americans are the only racial group still making less money than in 2000.

Jennifer Richeson, a Yale psychology professor who co-wrote the study, said with understatement, “Our views about racial progress and economic equality are fairly inconsistent with reality. She added, “The misperception of improving racial equality is itself an obstacle to actually achieving the progress that everyone seems to be celebrating.”

The improvement people across racial and income barriers perceive is actually wishful thinking. The Washington Post reported, “The average black household made 60 percent of what white households made in 2016 and less than half of what Asians made, according to census data. For every $100 of wealth accumulated by a white family, a black family has little more than $5 – a gap just as wide as it was 50 years ago, according to federal statistics cited by the Yale researchers.”

“Wealthy whites were also the most inaccurate in estimating racial economic equality in the present,” The Post reported. “Higher-status individuals – i.e. wealthy whites – are especially motivated to perceive society as fair so they can justify their elevated status as merit-based rather than resulting from luck or discriminatory systems, researchers said.”

Richeson tells The Post, “We need to stop deceiving ourselves. It could be a lack of information, but there’s also a role of willful blindness. Wealth inequality based on race is baked into this country’s founding, and we cannot handle it. It is not that these individuals don’t work hard enough or are genetically inferior.”

It would be easy to be pessimistic about the Yale study findings, which cited “continued discrimination in housing and bank loans [that] sabotages black Americans' ability to accumulate wealth. But there’s no real policy push to fix that, because most people don’t see the extent of the racial wealth gap to begin with.” You won’t fix what you don’t think is broken.

Passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation has been deemed by some members of US society as the cures to discrimination. “It is not surprising Americans who don’t have much contact with other races and incomes have drawn false conclusions about other people's economic experiences,” according to the study. “Wealthy blacks have more racially and economically diverse social networks compared to wealthy whites, who have little understanding of the economic outcomes of most black Americans.”

The disconnect rears its head periodically, often in response to jury verdicts that acquit white police officers who shoot black men, as happened this week in Missouri.

“So many of us grew up hearing the story about America that basically said there was slavery and then that was fixed. Martin Luther King marched and then that was fixed. And then we had Obama,” Richeson said. “That’s a nice, clean story that makes everyone feel good even though it’s shockingly inaccurate."