Jennifer Richeson on Perceptions of Racial Inequality


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There is inequality in the United States, a fact most people accept and which data certainly bears out. But how bad do you think that inequality is, say, based on comparing the wealth held by the average Black person in America and the average white person? This is one of the questions that Jennifer Richeson, a social psychologist at Yale University, studies. She has news -- bad news -- about both the actual gap and what people across the board think that gap is.

First off, the facts. The Black-white wealth gap in the United States is, in Richeson’s words, “staggeringly large.” Citing figures from 2016, she notes that “the average Black family had about 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family.” The actual percentage in wealth improved slightly in the five years since, “but the important thing is that it’s a huge, staggering gap that has been persistent for 50 to 60 years.”

With the gap so large and so persistent, you might expect estimates of its size to reflect reality. You would be mistaken, as Richeson tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “If you ask the average American on any given day, they will probably say the wealth gap is around 65, 70 percent. … That’s not only wrong, it’s very wrong compared to the actual wealth gap. … Part of the reason we’re so wrong is because we really believe that since the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, things have gotten dramatically better and are continuing to get better.”

The perception is that roughly since the Civil Rights era the gap narrowed from about half to near parity. Respondents to these sorts of questions “feel compelled to conform to this narrative of racial progress” in their estimates, a narrative that Richeson has likened to a mythology.

“No, things are not fine – they are similarly bad as they were in the 60s. That’s true for the wealth gap, that’s true for the wage gap. Income is slightly better, but not much. It’s a persistent and pervasive staggering inequality that’s stubborn, and our psychology refuses to believe that.”

Visions of this delusional economic advancement are shared broadly across the nation’s economic and ethnic strata; “Black Americans,” Richeson says, “are more accurate but still really wrong.” Her research has found that the more you believe in a just world, the more your estimate will underestimate the gap. This suggests in part why Black Americans – with daily experiences of structural inequality – give estimates that are at least a little closer to the mark. “One reason we believe there is this gap between Black Americans and white Americans is because of the differential tendency to believe that outcomes are fair and only determined by your individual effort, talent, hard work.”

This massive misperception matters. While “being this wrong about anything is interesting” academically, Richeson says, the magnitude of this misperception affects individual and societal wellbeing; it also undermines the idea behind the so-called American dream, that American society is a meritocracy. American cannot, she says, “just know the truth and do nothing about it.”

Richeson, the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, received the SAGE-CASBS Award in 2020 for her work and will deliver a COVID-delayed lecture at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University later this year. That was one of a number of honors she has accumulated, including a 2007 John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the “genius award”), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), the Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark Distinguished Lecture Award from Columbia University (2019), the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (2019), and a Carnegie Foundation Senior Fellowship (2020).

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