New Haven is among the most diverse cities in the United States, but like most American cities, its neighborhoods, schools and community spaces are strikingly segregated on racial and socioeconomic lines.
For me, a relative newcomer to Connecticut, the patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation here and throughout the state are striking. Yet, for friends and coworkers who have been here for a while, the racial economic inequality that is so clearly part and parcel of New Haven no longer seems noteworthy. Instead, it is largely viewed as another, albeit regrettable, feature of our town that can fade into the background as people negotiate their daily lives.
Just as friends and coworkers have acclimated to the patterns of race and socioeconomic division that characterize New Haven, it appears that Americans have largely done the same regarding the racial economic inequality that persists nationwide.
In research, published this fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists Jennifer A. Richeson, Julian M. Rucker and I report evidence of a widespread and staggering misperception of the current state of racial economic inequality in America. In four studies, we asked 1,377 Americans to estimate the current disparity between black and white Americans, on average, on a number of economic outcomes, including household wealth and income, both before 1984 and between 2010 to 2015.
Across all studies, respondents said that considerable progress toward black-white economic equality has not only been achieved, but that equality in amounts of household income, wealth and wages for black and white Americans has nearly been realized. Regarding progress toward income equality, respondents believed that black American families that in the past made $50 were now making $84 for every $100 earned by white families. Actual gains calculated based on median federal economic data, however, indicate that black families faced stagnation rather than progress, up only $6.20 to $56.20 in income per every $100 earned by white families.
On the matter of wealth differences between black and white families, where wealth is defined as the difference between a family's financial assets and their liabilities, for instance, respondents on average estimated that black families had $85 in wealth for every $100 held by white families, when according to federal data released in September, it is actually $10.30 per $100 — an overestimation error of nearly 75 percent. While not as large, respondents overestimated the current state of the black-white income equality by nearly 27 percent. This overall pattern of optimistic misperception was largest among white Americans with higher incomes, $100,000 and above.
Our respondents, in other words, reported on an America that seems to match our national egalitarian ideals, not our collective reality.
This research suggests that we are largely blind to the racially patterned inequality in American society as a whole, just like we are seemingly blind, or perhaps, numb to the evidence of the same inequality playing out in our local communities.
Public, private and charter schools in and around New Haven, and in Connecticut more broadly, are heavily segregated on racial and socioeconomic lines. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision more than 60-some years ago, educational opportunities in Connecticut continue to be meted out unequally based on race and economic circumstances. And though magnet programs like the Sheff initiative show remarkable promise on the path to integration, children who attend Hartford neighborhood schools because they do not win the magnet lottery continue to face segregation as well as budget shortfalls that require the rationing of paper, conditions that perpetuate the racial economic inequality that defines our lives and neighborhoods.
Solving our statewide racial economic inequality problem will require significant, even radical, shifts in state funding models that aggressively promote the integration and the equitable funding of schools. These policy changes will rely on individual voters and policymakers choosing equality over their own personal and neighborhood interests. Only by reconciling with the magnitude of the racially patterned inequality around us is this difficult choice possible.
In fact, one of our experiments suggests a path forward. In the study, we compared current estimates of black-white economic equality to an experiment during which respondents were also asked to consider the active presence of societal racial discrimination in America. Spending just a moment considering the persistence of racial discrimination in society nudged estimates of black-white economic equality closer to reality. These latter results suggest that more accurate perceptions of racial inequality in our communities are possible to the extent that we bravely acknowledge the past and present reality of race in America.
For residents of Connecticut, these experiments suggest that we cannot be satisfied with general ignorance of the circumstances with which members of our communities — those on the "other side of town" — actually live. Not knowing or acknowledging how our economic outcomes and fortunes are patterned by racial discrimination, past and present, puts all of us at risk of ignoring how unequally we currently share opportunities with children in our communities.
Michael Kraus, a social psychologist who specializes in the study of hierarchy and inequality, is an assistant professor at the Yale University School of Management.