racial inequality: it’s not getting better

Until the 2016 election, it was very easy for Americans to convince ourselves that racial inequality was getting better. Look, a Black president! What could be a better sign of improvement in race relations? Of course, as sociologists like Eduardo Bonilla Silva have long argued, “Obama’s America” offered a promise of colorblindness, not a reality of racial equality. Three recent data points are worth keeping in mind when thinking about the (lack of) progress on racial inequality in the past 30 years – even before White Supremacy came back to the front page, and Trump entered the Oval Office.

First, Lincoln Quillian, Devah Pager, Ole Hexel, and Arnfinn H. Midtbøen have a new paper in PNAS showing little evidence that racial discrimination in hiring has improved since 1989. More precisely, they argue:

Since 1989, whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. We observe no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years, although we find modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos. Accounting for applicant education, applicant gender, study method, occupational groups, and local labor market conditions does little to alter this result. Contrary to claims of declining discrimination in American society, our estimates suggest that levels of discrimination remain largely unchanged, at least at the point of hire.

Second, the latest Census income report came out. Perhaps the most staggering overall finding is that median incomes have not budged. But along with that, we see no movement in the Black/White income gap. Here’s a figure summarizing the data from the Washington Post:


The median Black household makes about 61% of the median White household, a gap that’s basically unchanged in 20 years. EPI has more details about the data here and notes that the last two years have been relatively good for Black and Hispanic households – but still, those massive gaps are there and it would take a lot of really good years to put a dent in them.

Third, the racial wealth gap is even more extreme than the income gap. In general, wealth is much more concentrated than income. But for the racial wealth gap, the story is staggering. A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies notes that if current trends continue, “median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053 and median Latino household wealth is projected to hit zero twenty years later. In sharp contrast, median White household wealth would climb to $137,000 by 2053.” Whether or not you put much stock in the prediction, it’s hard to find much evidence of progress in the data on racial wealth gaps. Here’s a figure from the report, drawing on data through 2013:

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.49.19 AM.png

Wealth data are messy and complicated, but the best research available shows the same basic pattern. As Killewald et al (2017) summarize:

Racial disparities in wealth in the United States are vast (Conley 1999, Oliver & Shapiro 2006). From the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s, the median wealth of white households was approximately 10 times that of black households and approximately 8 times that of Hispanic households; race disparities nearly doubled during the Great Recession (Kochhar et al. 2011). In absolute terms, wealth disparities between whites and African Americans are larger at higher points in the wealth distribution (Maroto 2016).

So this isn’t even a case where the median is somehow hiding something good happening elsewhere in the distribution, and it does appear that things have gotten worse.

To sum up: Racial economic inequality is bad and isn’t getting better, at least since the late 1980s. Employment discrimination hasn’t gotten better, income gaps haven’t gotten better, and wealth gaps haven’t gotten better. And all that’s before the 2016 election, and whatever the new administration has in store for economic policy and civil rights.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

6 thoughts on “racial inequality: it’s not getting better”

    1. I think this line of argument holds *some* water for gender wage gaps (though interpreting those factors as choices rather than institutionally sexist constraints is tricky). The argument for racial gaps is much harder. Experimental research on discrimination in hiring nets out all possible comparisons- literally identical candidates except for race, minority candidates are offered jobs less often. If that’s not a stat indicating racism then what stat possibly could? And that’s even if we restrict our definition of racism to something about discrimination in the treatment of individuals. I suppose you could go the implicit bias route in explaining the discrimination, but that’s just offering an argument for *how* racism works, not saying it’s not there.

      The wealth gap, on the other hand, acts as a kind of record of past racism (by the state, by employers, by communities, etc.). That white children are born to parents with much greater resources and inherit much money produces racial inequality and acts as a form of systematic racism whether or not any current individual holds any particular belief.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. One of the things I hate most about racist white people is this narrative that “we” should shut up and be contented cos “things are getting better”. Things are getting much, much worse. But just keep on ignoring us, white people 👍🏻


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