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Study: Wealthy Whites Have Skewed Perception of Racial Economic Equality

Racial Economic Equality

African-Americans, both rich and poor, were wildly pessimistic about racial economic equality in the past. (Photo by Jose Louis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)

Wealthy white Americans grossly overestimate progress toward racial economic equality despite clear evidence of persistent gaps between Black and white U.S. workers when it comes to wealth and annual income, a new Yale University study revealed.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences Monday, Sept. 18, comes just a week after census data showed that African-Americans are the only group still earning less than they did in 2000, The Washington Post reported. The numbers indicated that the average Black household made just 60 percent of what white households made and less than half of what Asian households made.

Moreover, data cited by Yale researchers revealed that for every $100 earned by a white household, Black households make little more than $5. That gap is just as wide as it was 50 years ago.

Despite this evidence, many Americans, even well-to-do Black Americans, remain unaware of the stark economic inequality between the races. Researchers said these misperceptions are largely driven by a tendency to want to see improved economic equality today rather than looking at what government-backed statistics actually show.

“Our findings suggest that Americans tend to be too optimistic about the scope of racial progress in the U.S., specifically in the domain of economic outcomes,” said Jennifer A. Richeson, a professor of psychology at Yale and co-author of the new study. “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,” Richeson added.

Across four studies, Black and white Americans from various socioeconomic backgrounds were asked to give their estimates on the degree of racial equality today, and years past based on economic indicators such as hourly wages of college grads, the hourly wages of high school grads, household wealth, household income and job-provided health benefits, according to Yale News. Researchers then weighed participant perceptions against federal data and found that average estimates exceeded reality by about 25 percent.

“Everybody across our study sees progress, no matter their income and race,” said Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at the Yale School of Management who also contributed to the study. “They think the gaps that have existed in the past are naturally closing.”

Unsurprisingly, rich white Americans were more likely to overestimate racial economic equality than both low-income white Americans and Black Americans across all income levels, according to the report. Low-income whites were also the most accurate in their estimates of racial economic inequality in the past while Blacks, both rich and poor, were overly pessimistic about past racial economic equality.

Researchers attributed psychological and structural beliefs to people’s skewed optimism as well. Those who most believed in a fair and just society influenced by American ideals were more likely to overestimate progress toward race-based economic equality. Rather than acknowledge the fact that there is a huge wealth disparity, people at the top (ex: wealthy whites) will maintain their fair view of society as a means to justify their higher status.

“It is simply easier to believe the wealth gap doesn’t exist, or that it exists only due to factors like individual merit or effort,” Kraus said.

However, researchers found that asking white participants to imagine an “alternative United States” where racial discrimination is still prevalent in today’s society helped reduce their tendency to overestimate racial economic equality.

Lastly, authors noted that their findings suggest a need for scholarship and policy debates explaining how racial economic disparities are tied to structural and other forms of racial discrimination.

“We need to stop deceiving ourselves,” Richeson said. “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.”

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