Researchers find a link between income inequality and racial bias

A new study provides evidence that income inequality is related to racial bias in the United States. The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that higher income inequality was associated with higher rates of anti-Black bias among Whites.

“Around 2010-2011 it seemed to me that social science research was converging with rising popular opposition to inequality, suggesting that inequality may lead to a variety of social harms,” said study author Paul Connor (@PaulrConnor), a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I saw this a promising and potentially important topic to investigate. After beginning my graduate program, I realised that although a number of researchers had theorised about a relationship between inequality and racial bias, this hypothesis hadn’t been vigorously tested, and the data required to do so was available. I thought it would make for a neat and interesting project.”

Connor and his colleagues compared state-level measures of income inequality to racial bias data from 1,554,109 White people who completed the Implicit Association Test at Harvard’s Project Implicit website.

The IAT measures differences in the time taken to categorize faces, depending on whether they are paired with positive or negative words. Faster responses to certain pairings are thought to reflect a stronger automatic association between the concepts.

“We observed a small but significant within-state relationship between income inequality and White Americans’ explicit anti-Black racial bias in the United States from 2004-2015. In other words, in years when states were relatively more unequal, their White residents were also more likely to report feeling warmer toward Whites than Blacks, and to report preferring Whites to Blacks,” Connor told PsyPost.

The study uncovered a positive relationship between income inequality and explicit racial bias — but not implicit racial bias. White people living in more unequal states were more likely to agree with the statement “I strongly prefer European Americans to African Americans” but they were not more likely to have a higher racial bias score on the IAT.

The researchers also failed to find evidence that income inequality was related to searches for the N-word on Google.

“The most important caveat is probably that these effects were small. Our data suggests that there may be a relationship between inequality and explicit racial bias, but it definitely does not suggest that inequality is a primary cause of racial bias, or that racial bias is a primary effect of income inequality,” Connor explained.

“Instead, our data suggests that there is a robust downward trend in these measures of racial bias over time in the USA that appears relatively unrelated to inequality. Also, while the data seems more consistent with inequality affecting racial bias, it’s important to note that we cannot rule out alternate causal direction, that racial bias may play a role in producing greater inequality.”

The researchers noted that even though the effect sizes were small, such effects can accumulate and become meaningful in large enough numbers.

The study, “Income Inequality and White-on-Black Racial Bias in the United States: Evidence From Project Implicit and Google Trends“, was authored by Paul Connor, Vasilis Sarafidis, Michael J. Zyphur, Dacher Keltner, and Serena Chen.