“If They Only Knew”: Informing Blacks and Whites about the Racial Wealth Gap

Vincent Hutchings delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies on March 31, 2021. 

screen capture of Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan from Zoom event on March 31, 2021.

Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan at the inaugural lecture on March 31, 2021.

Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the landmark study An American Dilemma, believed that education was the key to racial progress. Myrdal wrote “There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.” 

Vincent Hutchings began his inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies by citing this quote, and immediately calling it into question. Is it true that policies aimed at alleviating the racial wealth disparities would gain more support if only whites knew the true extent of the gap? 

A noteworthy aspect of the recent protests against police brutality and racial inequality has been the extent to which white Americans were participants in greater numbers than in the past. Even before the events of 2020, numerous surveys show whites becoming more racially progressive and acknowledging the reality of racial bias against Blacks. But does that mean that whites will support policies to reduce racial disparities? Professor Hutchings suggests that this is an example of a principle-policy gap; whites are prepared to acknowledge that injustice exists in principle, but they may not be willing to support redistributive policies. 

Research has shown that both Blacks and whites underestimate the racial wealth gap. Hutchings and his research team, which includes Sydney Carr, Kamri Hudgins, Zoe Walker, wanted to find out what would happen if they could correct misperceptions of the racial wealth gap. Would informing people about the size of the racial wealth gap influence opinions about policies to address the gap? 

The research team posited that the way the information was framed would be important. Past studies and media headlines about wealth disparities tend to frame the issue in terms of Black disadvantage. It’s less common to see a focus on the ways whites are advantaged. 

A first study, conducted in June 2020, surveyed 2,024 online respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned either to a control group, where they were merely provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, or to one of two treatment conditions that provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, as well as textual and visual information on the current size of the Black/white racial wealth gap based on information from the 2017 Survey of Consumer Finances. The first treatment group received information framed in terms of Black disadvantage; the second treatment group received information with a white advantage frame. 

The experiment was informative, but not persuasive. White participants in the treatment groups that received more information about the size of the racial wealth gap subsequently showed a better understanding of the issue. Black participants in the treatment groups also showed a fairly accurate assessment of the wealth gap, with less difference between the control and treatment groups. Neither whites nor Blacks in the treatment groups adopted different positions on racial policy. The one policy area where the study found some change was reparations; white respondents who received more information about the wealth gap were slightly more supportive of reparations. 

If the study participants were informed about the wealth gap, but did not change their support for policies to address it, perhaps the treatments were not strong enough? In open-ended questions in the first study, some participants responded that they believed the wealth gap existed because whites worked harder than Blacks. To address these issues, the research team launched a second study in March 2021, building on the first study and specifically highlighting the limited impact of education on reducing the racial wealth gap. 

The second study included four treatment groups and a control group. 

  • Treatment group 1 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage. 
  • Treatment group 2 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage. 
  • Treatment group 3 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage, as well as information that Black household heads with a college degree have the same wealth as white household heads without a high school diploma.
  • Treatment group 4 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage, as well as information that white household heads without a high school diploma have the same wealth as Black household heads with a college degree.

Whites across the ideological spectrum are informed by the treatments in the second study. Surprisingly, the additional information about education was less effective than the general population frames. 

Again, the results showed that a better understanding of the racial wealth gap does not make participants more progressive on racial policies. However, those in the first treatment group (receiving information framed in terms of Black disadvantage) showed mild increase in support for reparations. 

Surprisingly, white liberals in the fourth treatment group (receiving information about the wealth gap and education, with a frame of white advantage) had a threat response to the treatment. When responding to questions about competition for jobs and political influence, white liberals in the fourth treatment group perceived more competition between racial groups. They responded to questions about racism, such as whether whites have greater wealth because they are naturally superior and whether the use of racial epithets by whites was acceptable, in less progressive ways. 

These studies show the limits of providing information about racial disparities. People are not necessarily persuaded to close the gaps when they know more about them. When asked if he was discouraged by the outcome of the studies, Professor Hutchings said that as an educator, he is an optimist. He said that he is motivated by his students to keep asking questions about political opinions and behavior. Hutchings and his students will field new surveys to further examine these questions in the fall of 2021.