This Study Says We’re Way Too Optimistic About Racial Income Equality

Pedestrians walk past a Jeff Koons sculpture in downtown Manhattan, Friday, April 14, 2017, in New York
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

It’s not a secret that black families are, on average, likely to have less income and accumulate less wealth than white families in America.

That is explained by historic social and economic discrimination that black Americans have faced while attempting to access high-paying jobs, adequate housing and even proper education. Most people are willing to acknowledge that.

What most people don’t realize, however, is how wide the economic disparity really is, according to a recent Yale University study reported in the New York Times.

Racial Income Equality: The Gap Between Perception and Reality

Researchers asked participants how much they believed the average black family made for every $100 the average white family made. The questions addressed overall income, income of college graduates, income of high school graduates and accumulated wealth.

In every category, participants overestimated equality.

Concerning high school and college graduates, participants thought black families were only slightly behind white families, as they guessed black families brought in $90 for every $100 white families brought in.

In reality, black high school grads make just under $80 for every $100 while people with the same level of education make. For college grads, it’s just over $80 for every $100 a white person with the same level of education makes.

For overall income, which is not based on education level, study participants guessed black families brought in more than $80 for every $100 dollars white families earned. In reality, black families make $57.30 for every $100 white families earn.

The widest disparity between perception and reality was accumulated wealth. Participants thought familial wealth for black families was nearly on par with white families. In reality, though, for every $100 of wealth a white family accumulates, black families only accumulate $5.04.

What’s Behind These Inaccurate Perceptions?

Researchers used data from the census population survey to compare with participants’ answers.

“It seems that we’ve convinced ourselves – and by ‘we’ I mean Americans writ large – that racial discrimination is a thing of the past,” Jennifer Richeson, one of the study’s authors, told the New York Times. “We’ve literally overcome it, so to speak, despite blatant evidence to the contrary.”

Researchers explain that the disparity likely comes from our general and persistent optimism about social and economic progress, even in the face of readily accessible facts.

And while black Americans did overestimate equality, the group whose guesses where the farthest off mark were wealthy white people.

“Despite this information being out there, we don’t really take it in,” study author Michael Kraus told the New York Times. This happens “in a way that suggests that maybe we’re motivated to forget it, or motivated to distort it in our own minds.”

The study’s authors say that a willingness to accept the facts rather than our own assumptions would likely lead to more widespread support of initiatives like affirmative action, school desegregation and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

That would be the path to genuine equality.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.