Yale
07
Jan

On racial misperceptions and the American dream

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There’s a fascinating study out of Yale University that shows Americans vastly under-estimate inequality in the U.S., particularly racial disparities. They estimated that Black Americans are 80% as wealthy as White Americans. In fact, blacks are just 5% as wealthy as whites. From the authors of the study: 

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

Compounding the problem, when quizzed on whether the country has gotten more equal over recent decades, participants overestimated the degree of progress by more than 20 points.

Michael Kraus argues that these misperceptions fit conveniently with the idea of the American dream—that every individual, regardless of background, can succeed with talent and hard work. “Those beliefs can lead us astray, can lead us to not see the world for what it is. There’s a lot of work that still needs doing if our economic reality is going to match up with our narratives of opportunity.”

These misperceptions have serious real-world consequences. We have seen numerous surveys showing that supporters of Trump are motivated strongly by the perception that they, White Americans, are actually falling behind, while others, namely Americans of color and immigrants, are advancing at their expense. This zero-sum game canard was, of course, used masterfully and, of course, fraudulently by the man now occupying the White House.