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Americans misperceive racial economic equality

  1. Jennifer A. Richesonb,c,d,e,1
  1. aSchool of Management, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520;
  2. bDepartment of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520;
  3. cInstitution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520;
  4. dDepartment of Psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208;
  5. eInstitute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208
  1. Contributed by Jennifer A. Richeson, August 10, 2017 (sent for review May 9, 2017; reviewed by Shai Davidai and James Jones)


Race-based economic inequality is both a defining and persistent feature of the United States that is at odds with national narratives regarding progress toward racial equality. This work examines perceptions of Black–White differences in economic outcomes, both in the past and present. We find that Americans, on average, systematically overestimate the extent to which society has progressed toward racial economic equality, driven largely by overestimates of current racial equality. Notably, White Americans generated more accurate estimates of Black–White equality when asked to consider the persistence of race-based discrimination in American society. The findings suggest a profound misperception of and misplaced optimism regarding contemporary societal racial economic equality—a misperception that is likely to have important consequences for public policy.


The present research documents the widespread misperception of race-based economic equality in the United States. Across four studies (n = 1,377) sampling White and Black Americans from the top and bottom of the national income distribution, participants overestimated progress toward Black–White economic equality, largely driven by estimates of greater current equality than actually exists according to national statistics. Overestimates of current levels of racial economic equality, on average, outstripped reality by roughly 25% and were predicted by greater belief in a just world and social network racial diversity (among Black participants). Whereas high-income White respondents tended to overestimate racial economic equality in the past, Black respondents, on average, underestimated the degree of past racial economic equality. Two follow-up experiments further revealed that making societal racial discrimination salient increased the accuracy of Whites’ estimates of Black–White economic equality, whereas encouraging Whites to anchor their estimates on their own circumstances increased their tendency to overestimate current racial economic equality. Overall, these findings suggest a profound misperception of and unfounded optimism regarding societal race-based economic equality—a misperception that is likely to have any number of important policy implications.


  • ?1To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: michael.kraus{at}yale.edu or jennifer.richeson{at}yale.edu.
  • This contribution is part of the special series of Inaugural Articles by members of the National Academy of Sciences elected in 2015.

  • Author contributions: M.W.K., J.M.R., and J.A.R. designed research; M.W.K. performed research; M.W.K. and J.M.R. analyzed data; M.W.K. and J.A.R. wrote the paper; and M.W.K. and J.A.R. interpreted results.

  • Reviewers: S.D., The New School; and J.J., University of Delaware.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • Data deposition: The materials and data for all studies are available at the Open Science Framework website, http://www.danielhellerman.com/vvrsr/#.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1707719114/-/DCSupplemental.

Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.

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