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Study Finds that Racial Stereotypes Contribute to Wage Gap Between White and Black Men

The lingering effects of negative stereotypes are stifling, even for the richest black boys.


A new study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau has concluded that income inequality between black and white Americans is driven almost exclusively by the wage gap between white and black men. It found that even when black boys are born into favorable economic circumstances, they often don’t remain in that demographic for their entire lives, whereas their white counterparts do.

The study traced the influence of race on the economic status of an entire generation of Americans born between 1978 and 1983, and found that upward mobility occurs – sometimes very slowly – within almost every other racial demographic, except for black men.

The study found that those of Hispanic heritage had a rate of income mobility that at this point is almost comparable to white people, in that they are slowly earning a larger portion of distributed income. In terms of income mobility, Asian-Americans often do better than white Americans, especially when their parents are also Asian-American.

This is far from the case for black and American Indian children. Black children born at the bottom have a less than three percent chance of rising to the top of the income ladder; for comparison, white children born in the same circumstance have roughly an 11 percent chance of the same ascension. When the situation is reversed, black children are at a similar disadvantage: “Black children born to parents in the top income quintile are almost as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile.”

There are a lot of factors that drive the social and economic stagnation black boys face. Studies have shown that black men earn substantially less than white men over the course of their careers. While conventional logic would suggest that this trend expands to black and white women in exactly the same way, it doesn’t appear to: while black women earn a pittance when compared to men, they are more likely than black men to stay in the top income quintile if they are born into favorable economic circumstances.

It is often noted that black youth have a much higher likelihood of growing up in single-parent households than white youth, which is used as an explanation for why black kids struggle to succeed in adult life. One of the most striking findings in this new study throws a wrench into that entire logic. It determined that “differences in family characteristics,” such as parental marriage rates and education, have very little to offer in the way of explaining the huge wage gap that exists between white and black men overall.

Even when black men and white men are born on the same block, white men still economically succeed at a higher rate. Though the study did find that “within low-poverty areas,” the black-white wage gap is least pronounced in places with limited racial-bias and a high presence of black fathers.

In an interview with the New York Times Noelle Hurd, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, blamed longstanding stereotypes for the disparity between white and black men: “It’s not just being black but being male that has been hyper-stereotyped in this negative way,” said Hurd. “We’ve made black men scary, intimidating, with a propensity toward violence.”

Research backs up Hurd’s claim: black boys and men are often subject to worse punishments than any other group in American society. They’re suspended at higher rates and, according to Census data, more than 20 percent born into the most impoverished 25th percentile are incarcerated. Hurd notes that as long as the social perception of black men remains un-divorced from criminality, black men with less education will continue to struggle in a world where jobs in the service sector are replacing manufacturing work as the primary occupations for people with little or no post-secondary education.