Economics Sep 2, 2020
White Americans Overestimate Racial Progress. But Certain Attempts to Remedy That Could Backfire.
Researchers hoped that having white participants read about racism would help them grasp the true extent of racial gaps in wealth and income. They were wrong.
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Economic inequality between Black and white Americans is a defining feature of our country: the average Black family earns just 60 percent of what the average white family earns and has a tenth the net worth—statistics that have scarcely budged since the 1960s.
Despite the magnitude of this disparity, research shows that white Americans are largely unaware of it. So how do you correct the misperception that everyone is on an equal footing?
Research from Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, and colleagues, suggests it’s no small feat. White Americans have highly inaccurate perceptions of economic equality—and they have difficulty changing those views, even when they are reminded of the persistence of discrimination.
The researchers found that white Americans’ assessments of overall racial progress did change after reading about racism, but this did not make their estimates of present-day economic inequality any more accurate. What’s more, white participants who read about prejudice were actually more optimistic about past equality than white participants who read about an unrelated topic.
As the researchers write, “the logic appears to be: if there has not been too much progress and contemporary society is largely fair, then the past must not have been as bad as I thought.”
To Onyeador, this unexpected outcome reveals how invested many white Americans are in a national narrative of continual racial progress. As a result, it’s difficult for them to recognize the challenges that remain. “These perceptions are very wrong, and we need them to be more accurate in order to garner support for policy interventions,” she says.
The finding also suggests how easily efforts to raise awareness about racism can backfire: “Even though we were able to shift perceptions of progress,” Onyeador notes, “there was an unexpected consequence of doing so.”
Estimating Racial Economic Equality
Onyeador and her coauthors—Natalie M. Daumeyer, Julian M. Rucker, Ajua Duker, Michael W. Kraus, and Jennifer A. Richeson, all of Yale University—knew going into their study that whites tend to be uninformed about the extent of racial income inequality in the United States: these researchers’ previous work had shown that white Americans overestimate the degree of equality in both income (as measured by wages) and wealth (as measured by the value of all assets, including savings, homes, and cars).
The researchers also knew that learning more about historical and structural racism has been shown to make white Americans more alert to discrimination and racial disparities. As a result, “we were wondering if exposing people to the idea that discrimination has been pervasive would help them be more accurate in their perceptions of racial economic equality—in the past, in the present, and particularly in terms of racial progress over time,” Onyeador says.
“In social psychology, we’re usually dealing with smaller effects—but people are really wrong about this.”
— Ivuoma Onyeador
So, the researchers recruited a group of nearly 700 white participants online. They were divided into two groups: one group read a news article about the history and persistence of racial discrimination in American life, while the control group read about left-handedness.
Next, participants in both groups answered questions about past and present racial economic equality in the United States. Participants estimated, from $0 to $200, how much the average Black family earned for every $100 earned by the average white family in both 1963 and 2016. They also estimated the average wealth accumulated by Black families relative to white families in those same years.
Then, participants rated from one to seven how much overall racial progress had been made in the United States, with one indicating very little progress and seven indicating a great deal of progress.
White Americans’ Estimates of Economic Equality Are Way Off
The researchers began their analysis by calculating how accurately participants estimated wealth and income equality. They also calculated participants’ estimates of progress by subtracting estimates of wealth and income equality in 1963 from estimates of wealth and income equality in 2016.
When looking at both groups’ responses together, the researchers found that participants’ estimates of income and wealth equality were wildly inaccurate.
For income, participants overestimated the degree of inequality in the past (that is, they thought incomes were less equal than they actually were), but they significantly underestimated it in the present. As a result, their overall perceptions of progress between 1963 and 2016 were way off, with participants believing that far more progress toward income equality had been made than was accurate.
For wealth equality, perceptions were also notably skewed, but in a different way. Participants estimated that in 1963, a typical Black family accumulated around $39 for every $100 of wealth accumulated by a White family. (In reality, it was just $5.) Estimates of the present day were also highly inflated: participants estimated that Black families accumulated $73 for every $100 accumulated by white families, when in reality it was just $10.
The magnitude of these misperceptions was striking. “In social psychology, we’re usually dealing with smaller effects—but people are really wrong about this,” Onyeador says. “It’s not only quite surprising, but it is sobering.”
Reading about Racism Reshapes Perceptions of the Past, Not the Present
That analysis looked at participants’ overall assessments of racial progress. Next, the researchers examined whether those assessments differed depending on which group the participants were in—that is, whether they had read the article about racism versus the one about left-handedness.
Indeed, they did. Participants who read about racism gave lower ratings on the one-to-seven scale of progress—an average of 4.66, as compared with 5.41 among participants who read about left-handedness.
Participants who read about racism also produced more accurate estimates of wealth and income equality than those who read about left-handedness. While both groups overestimated the extent of progress toward wealth and income equality, participants who read about racism did so by a smaller margin.
But when the researchers looked at these figures more closely, they found something surprising. They had calculated participants’ estimates of progress toward equality by subtracting 1963 estimates from 2016 estimates. They did this with the hypothesis that reading the article about racism was likely to affect participants’ estimates of equality in the present.
It turned out, however, that reading about racism didn’t affect participants’ beliefs about the present—it only affected their beliefs about the past. And it affected them in the opposite way than one might expect.
Participants who read about racism estimated more equality in 1963 than participants who read about left-handedness. “We definitely did not expect that,” Onyeador says.
New Study, Same Unexpected Finding
The result of the first study was so surprising that Onyeador and her colleagues conducted a similar, larger study next.
They recruited a new group of 845 white participants. This time, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group read an article focused on explicit racial bias, one group read about implicit racial bias, and the control group did not read an article.
The idea was to see if white Americans might better internalize an article about implicit bias, a type of racism more commonly discussed and accepted today, as compared with explicit racism, which white Americans tend to associate with the past.
Yet, when asked to do the same assessments as in the first study, the very same trends emerged: reading about racism—whether implicit or explicit—influenced participants’ assessments of overall racial progress, but it did not improve the accuracy of their estimates of wealth and income equality today. Rather, it changed how they viewed the past, shifting their views about the degree of equality in 1963.
Why White Americans Overestimate Racial Progress
Onyeador says there are a few possible explanations for the paradoxical findings, although more research is needed to fully understand them. Many Americans hold dear a national narrative of continual triumph over injustice—“essentially, linear racial progress, unending from slavery through Jim Crow to our first Black president,” Onyeador explains.
When faced with evidence that not enough progress has been made, white Americans “have to decide how to integrate the idea [of lack of progress]. We were hoping they would integrate it by acknowledging that the present is less equal than they thought, but instead they revised their estimates of the past.”
It’s clear to Onyeador that just reading about racism wasn’t sufficient to help white people acknowledge the extent of racial inequality in society today. And although this approach didn’t work, it’s still essential to find one that does.
“It’s really important that people have an accurate sense of how vast the inequality is if we hope to garner support for interventions designed to address that inequality,” she says.
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