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Op-Ed: Deep racial inequality persists in the U.S. — but many Americans don’t want to believe it

Illustration of a black male figure standing on coins and a white male figure atop cash.
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Progress toward racial equality in the United States is real — and possible — if we look, for instance, at changes in racial attitudes across time.

However, a rigid belief that progress is automatic, natural, linear or always forward moving, lends itself to the denial of the persistence of racial inequality in the funding gaps between public schools serving majority white students versus those serving children of color, the disproportionate death and hospitalization rate during the COVID-19 pandemic in communities of color, and the Black-white wealth gap. This denial remains a big obstacle to real progress in so many spheres.

My colleagues and I study perceptions of racial inequality in society, and we find that Americans largely believe that society has made more progress toward equality than we have.

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In one study, we asked a sample of 1,008 American adults that represented the U.S. in terms of race, region and income, to estimate the average wealth of Black families compared with white families in 1963. Respondents thought that for every $100 in wealth held by white families, Black families had $50 on average. They believed there was inequality, but the scale was entirely wrong. In reality, according to federal data, the median Black family only had $6 in wealth for every $100 held by white families.

When asked to make the same comparison for 2016, they estimated that for every $100 held by white families, Black families had $90 on average. Federal data, however, show that Black families in 2016 held $11 for every $100 held by white families. The Black-white wealth gap was nearly as large as it was in 1963.

Many Americans have a hard time recognizing the magnitude and persistence of racial inequality because, psychologically, we resist these truths. Psychologists refer to this kind of broad bias in perception as “motivated cognition” — that is, most Americans want to live in a society that is more racially equal, and so they engage in mental actions that ignore, discount or downplay contradictory evidence to maintain coherence between belief and reality.

Current efforts to ban the teaching of America’s violent and unjust racial history in public schools are a form of motivated cognition. Another example, from one of our studies, is how the perception of Asian Americans as high-achieving leads to a significant underestimation of the wealth gap between Asian and white Americans, which downplays the economic inequality that burdens some Asian American communities.

Our data suggest a profound, and possibly willful, ignorance about the persistence of racial inequality among those most likely to benefit from it. In one study, among white and high-income respondents, we saw an insistence that more racial progress has been achieved — measured by overestimates of current racial equality — than among Black and low-income respondents. When progress toward equality is seen as inevitable, incentives for equitable political action are low.

We have also been examining ways to cut through motivated cognition on racial inequality. In a recent study, we created three tests to see whether stories or data would be more effective in helping people grasp the magnitude of current Black-white wealth inequality.

In one test, we discussed Black-white inequality through the perspective of a single Black family contending with significant challenges in their housing, financial wealth and educational circumstances. In another version, we discussed Black-white inequality through large summaries of data in the domains of housing, wealth and education. A third version combined the two approaches. After these sessions, a diverse sample of participants from New Haven, Conn., had a chance to express their views and think through solutions about inequality in a nonjudgmental setting.

We found that communicating with data, rather than a story, promoted more accurate estimates of the magnitude of current Black-white wealth inequality, increased acknowledgment of systemic white advantage in society, and did so equally for both white respondents and respondents of color. We believe that using data in a context where respondents could learn and speak freely about racial inequality, without being judged by our research staff, made it easier for the participants to absorb information about the magnitude of racial inequality in society.

Interestingly, the story of a single Black family did not change incorrect estimates of the Black-white wealth gap — possibly because it focused too narrowly on one case and heightened thoughts about what that particular family could do to overcome bias. In contrast, explanations based on data cast racism as a structural, rather than an individual, problem affecting whole groups based on their racial identity.

Although the effect of these sessions waned over time, the study suggests that educational initiatives of this sort, if made widespread, might be effective in helping people grasp the persistence of structural racism.

Progress toward racial equality is possible, but it will not unfold automatically, even with better education. Nevertheless, awareness and education are necessary precursors to action — whether that involves school board decisions, federal protection of voting rights or equity-focused employment programs. Unless Americans understand and acknowledge inequality as a fact, we won’t be able to build the political consensus needed for real change.

Michael Kraus is a social psychologist and an associate professor at Yale University.

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