How Fair Is American Society?


Interesting article about a study at Yale.

They found that Americans think our society is much fairer in terms of how wealth and income are shared across racial groups than what the numbers indicate. These overly optimistic perceptions may help explain why the wealth and income gaps persist.

Q: What did you learn through this study?

The biggest takeaway is that people in general in American society are overly optimistic about how much we share economic resources between different demographic groups. Our study is about black Americans and white Americans. Participants in our study estimated that things are relatively fair in terms of economic outcomes, but in fact, when you look at the best estimates based on publicly available economic data, you find wide chasms in terms of income and wealth disparities between black and white Americans. Those chasms have been huge for decades. And our participants in the studies think that those divides are smaller and that they’re naturally closing.

Q: How important is it to see that problem accurately?

One of the dangers that we see happening is that we want to move past issues of race all the time because they are difficult to talk about, because they bring up really painful pasts that we have lived in this country. It’s much more comfortable for us to avoid those thoughts. “Let’s think about it as something that happened in the past and move on to a brighter future.” Our paper suggests that what happens when you avoid thoughts of racial inequality is that you believe that economic differences between racial groups in society are naturally solving themselves.

When we perceive that kind of reality we can go on with our lives. It feels kind of comfortable. But in avoiding racial inequality, we will miss an opportunity to contend with one of the major challenges in our society. We want our society to be genuinely meritocratic. We want our society to live up to the American dream and we can’t do that if this inequality exists. And we definitely can’t solve the problem if we don’t know it exists.


Joel Lesko