‘Puncturing’ the Narrative of Racial Progress
Distinguished social psychologist reveals how Americans overestimate advances in racial equality, distorting reality and derailing progress
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Yale social psychologist Jennifer Richeson discusses her research examining the myth of racial progress.
The abolition of slavery, repeal of Jim Crow laws, and election of the first Black president bolster a narrative of progress toward racial equality that Americans want to believe in.
Yet, in her IPR Distinguished Public Policy Lecture on May 9, Yale social psychologist Jennifer Richeson discussed her research examining how this myth of linear, natural, automatic racial progress over time in the United States distorts our perceptions and influences our expectations.
In welcoming Richeson, a former IPR fellow from 2005–16, IPR Director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach told the 80-plus attending that “Jenn is a trailblazer in expanding our understanding of how different social and racial and ethnic groups perceive and interact with one another.”
Richeson, who serves on President Joe Biden’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has received many accolades for her groundbreaking research investigating the psychological phenomena of cultural diversity, including a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship that she received when she was at Northwestern and IPR.
In pursuing her discussion of the “mythology,” Richeson points to Americans’ belief that as a country, racial equality is automatically getting better in a largely linear fashion over time. While American society acknowledges the periods of history that blemish that timeline, such as slavery and Jim Crow laws, it also continues to embrace a belief that, with a few corrective measures, the country gets back on track and racial progress begins to unfold naturally yet again.
Richeson referred to the 2008 election of former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, as an example of what many Americans see as the start of a “post-racial” United States.
“This mythology, we argue, is not only operating, but it has some important implications including how and to what degree we perceive racial equality or inequality,” she said. If racial inequality is not perceived accurately, she continues, then it cannot be adequately rectified.
Richeson told the story of 75-year-old Bob Smith, who protested a few days after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in 2020. “But this was not his first protest,” Richeson said. She recounted how nearly half a century earlier, Smith had taken part in the 65-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, known as "Bloody Sunday, where he was beaten by police for protesting Jim Crow laws.
“Some people said, 'How is this happening again? Why do we still have to protest these things? And even worse, how is it that the same people are still protesting?'" Richeson said. “For a moment, our narrative of racial progress was just sort of punctured a little bit."
Richeson uses lab experiments, surveys, and other tools to understand the psychological and cognitive processes underlying Americans’ misbeliefs and misplaced optimism regarding racial progress.
In a 2019 study, she finds that Americans, especially wealthy Whites, vastly overestimate progress towards racial economic equality. She and her colleagues asked more than 1,000 nationally representative participants how much wealth they believe the average Black family had accumulated for every $100 of wealth accumulated by the average White family over 12 points between 1963 and 2016 where the researchers had corresponding federal data on wealth.
Richeson shows that, overwhelmingly, Americans falsely believe we have achieved considerable racial wealth equality: In 1963, participants thought that Black families had just less than half of the wealth of White families, but that Black wealth had climbed all the way up to 90% of that of Whites by 2016.
These estimates are “wildly inaccurate,” Richeson says, and feed into the myth that the passage of time equals progress. According to federal data, a Black family had little more than $5 for every $100 of wealth accumulated by a White family in 1963, and that had only nudged up to $10 for every $100 by 2016, or just 10% of Whites’ family wealth.
To further tease apart the “logic” that the passage of time equals progress, Richeson presented two other studies. In a 2022 study, the researchers asked one half of nearly 3,000 respondents to make two estimates of Black/White wealth for 1963 and 2016, the current year, and then the other half for just 2016. In another forthcoming study, they asked people to estimate wealth in the current year, 2019, and a future year, 2050.
When estimating wealth inequality at just one time point (in 2016), respondents in the first study pegged Black wealth at 60%—or 10% less than those estimating it across two timepoints in 1963 and 2016 (70%). While these were better than the estimates across more timepoints, they were still far above the actual percentage of around 10%.
The second study also reveals that not only is the racial progress mythology distorting the past, it is doing the same for the future: When asked to estimate Black wealth in the current year and 50 years in the future, respondents estimated it at 60% and 80%, respectively.
To better understand the psychological underpinnings of the racial progress narrative, Richeson suggests that in encountering such questions, people tend to think about some of the nation's most successful Black Americans—think, the Obamas, LeBron James, or Oprah Winfrey— people who are hardly representative of ordinary Black people.
She and her colleagues conducted a study where they examined exactly that, finding that when presented with images of the top five Black American billionaires they overestimate racial wealth equality more than when they are presented with images of America’s top five billionaires overall (all White men). Richeson argued that these results suggest that the latter images undermine participants’ tendency to think high wealth Black Americans just before they make their estimates of racial wealth equality.
In examining if they could disrupt this overoptimistic narrative of racial progress, Richeson described a 2020 study she worked on, led by social psychologist and IPR associate Ivy Onyeador, in which a treatment group read a passage about the persistence of racism since the 1960s. Surprisingly, rather than changing perceptions of the level of racial equality in the present, the treatment group actually formulated worse estimates of the wealth gap in the past, compared with those by the control group, who did not read a passage about racism.
“They refused to budge in their optimistic perceptions of the present,” Richeson said.
“Alright, so who is doing this overestimating?” Richeson asked. “Well, the answer, hopefully, you're getting is, ‘We all are.' We're all doing it. But some of us more than others.” In particular, she points to White Americans and the wealthy.
As to why, Americans still live in “incredibly segregated spaces,” Richeson explains, which contributes to a simple lack of information about people outside of your community.
Richeson also points to possible psychological explanations—a steadfast belief in a “just world” and faith in the “American dream”—which perpetuate the idea that anyone can achieve success just by working hard and dismiss the existence of systemic barriers facing minorities.
She debunks popular myths about societal changes Americans believe will lead to more racial diversity and equity. Neither more interracial relationships, nor multiracial children, nor even artificial intelligence or increasing racial diversity will automatically or necessarily resolve the persistent issue of racial inequality.
Richeson adds that it is not that the belief in the possibility of progress is bad, but it is “when we blind ourselves to reality in favor of mythology.”
The focus on the policy wins of the past that have led to increased racial equality can shield us from perceiving major current inequities, like the drastic inequality in school funding between Black and White areas.
The United States has made progress towards equality, Richeson acknowledges, but it still has a long way to go.
“We have made progress, things have changed, in fact, in remarkable ways” she said. But, when we do implement policies or create the conditions on which change can happen in the more racially egalitarian direction, those efforts are often met with severe backlash, even undoing any gains from the original policies.
Disrupting the narrative is not enough, she says, because of the strong determination of the American people to believe their country is progressing towards equality.
“Americans are determined to believe it, this progress narrative, and we are really committed to it. We don't want to let it go,” Richeson said
The country needs a dose of reality, plus possibility, to make true progress, Richeson explains, quoting former President Obama: “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
Watch the video.
Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale University, where she also directs the Social Perception & Communication Lab. She is also an IPR faculty adjunct.
IPR DISTINGUISHED PUBLIC POLICY LECTURES
IPR Distinguished Public Policy Lectures are given by prominent individuals who can speak to the use of research in policymaking and other issues. Past lecturers have included Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank President and CEO Raphael Bostic; Arthur Brooks, who was president of the American Enterprise Institute at the time; Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse, who currently chairs President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers; Donna Shalala when she was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services for President Bill Clinton, and many others.
IPR is one of the country's oldest and most prominent interdisciplinary social science research institutes. The Institute's more than 160 award-winning faculty are among the top experts in their fields. Using rigorous methods, they conduct innovative, policy-relevant research, tackling some of the nation's most pressing social issues—from education and inequality to social safety nets and gun violence. IPR faculty experts train policy-minded scholars and doers, and they share their research widely with policymakers, foundations, nonprofits, and the media to support sound policy decisions.
Published: May 23, 2023.