Here’s an interesting hypothetical. If you were asked to predict the magnitude of the racial wealth gap in 1963 versus 2016, what would you say? Has it improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse?
This was the focus of a new article appearing in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Michael Kraus of Yale University asked a sample of nationally representative American adults to compare the average black family’s wealth to the average white family’s wealth at different points in time. The discrepancy between people’s perception of the wealth gap and the true numbers is alarming to say the least.
They found that people, on average, believed that black families were about half as wealthy as white families in 1963 and approximately nine-tenths as wealthy as white families in 2016. If only that were the case. The truth is that black families, on average, had less than one-tenth of the wealth that white families possessed in 1963 and, in 2016, they still had less than one-tenth.
In other words, people believe that racial economic inequality is relatively small and that it has been getting better over time. In reality, neither is true.
And, it’s not just black people who receive the brunt of the misperception. The same pattern is observed when comparing perceptions of economic inequality between Latinx people and whites. (The underestimation of inequality applies to Asians too, but to a much lesser extent.)
What might be responsible for the massive divide between perception and reality? While there are likely many factors at play, the researchers point out that people who underestimate the size of the racial wealth gap are also more likely to endorse the belief that we live in a just world (i.e., that society is fair and people generally get what they deserve). In other words, the misperception might be driven by people’s motivation to view the world as they’d like it to be, not as it actually is.
Beyond that, it might just be that people simply don’t know any better.
The researchers contend that the misperception needs to be corrected if progress is going to be made to close the racial economic gap. They write, “The observed ignorance of the size of the wealth gap […] provides a significant challenge for any progressive economic policies. […] If racial inequality is rapidly and even naturally decreasing over time, as the public seems to believe, then racially progressive economic policies have no basis for political support and no space in public discourse.”