Americans across demographic groups tend to severely underestimate the extent of wealth inequality between black and white Americans today, according to a recent set of studies conducted by Yale researchers.

The studies, published as a paper in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were conducted by Yale professor of psychology Jennifer Richeson, Yale School of Management social psychologist Michael Kraus and psychology doctoral student Julian Rucker GRD ’22. The research compares 1,377 survey participants’ perceptions of race-based economic disparity to pertinent economic data, including recent population surveys. On average, participants overestimated income equality by 25 percent.

“We haven’t made progress, but everybody thinks we have,” said Kraus, a co-author of the study. The current gap between black and white income levels, Kraus suggested, was a key motivation for conducting the research. “Even though, as someone who studies inequality, I’m supposed to know what it looks like and how it’s patterned, it seems so jarring. So you have to understand why other people and yourself might be so blind. If we don’t know how severe these inequalities are, we can’t even begin to discuss them.”

Shai Davidai, an assistant professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research who peer reviewed the paper, concurred. He added that effecting real change will be impossible in the area of racial equality until people first understand that a problem exists.

Experts and peer researchers interviewed pointed to the increasingly prevalent narrative of black progress as a key cause of the schism between the perception and the reality of racial economic inequality.

“Underestimation of the amount of inequality makes sense,” said James Jones, a psychology professor at the University of Delaware who also peer reviewed the study. “People would think there was more before, and less now, because it was more obvious back then. Now we have wealthy entertainers, athletes, politicians.”

Roy Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego and the author of The Racial Glass Ceiling, cited Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama as two influential black personalities whose success may have contributed to this skewed perception of wealth disparities among racial groups.

Researchers interviewed also pointed to broader causal factors, including diversity of social networks and the concept of the American dream.

“It’s kind of ironic that the more diverse your network, the more likely you are to perceive greater equality,” Jones said. “So, if we are successful with our diversity efforts, it could ironically reduce the motivation to address the problem with racial inequality.”

Kraus also suggested that the gap in perception stems in part from the notion that with hard work, any American can realize his ambitions. He added that since Americans want to believe that society is fundamentally fair, they are willfully blind to the reality of inequality.

There was consensus among psychology academics interviewed about the relevance and importance of the research, with Chair of the Yale Department of Psychology Frank Keil calling it “fascinating” and “eye-opening.”

Still, peer experts warned against assuming, based on the study, that racial inequality is a wholly socio-economic problem.

“The study touches the lives of people in a very coherent fashion, and for that reason, it’s a very, very important study,” Brooks said. “But what I fear is that people will read the report and think that the race problem is essentially a socio-economic problem, when it’s larger than that. It is a three-headed hydra: a socio-economic, a socio-legal and a socio-cultural problem. You can’t skip over chapters; you have to understand this problem comprehensively.”

Several academics also suggested potential avenues for future research. Davidai said it would be very interesting to examine how results change when people are educated about inequality.

“You could imagine a study where people watch a short documentary about this inequality, and you could then assess whether that changes their perceptions,” he said.

Richeson, Kraus and Rucker started conducting their research in November 2016.

Saumya Malhotra | saumya.malhotra@yale.edu