Why is there racial inequality in the US?

Conservatives and liberals offer differing views on the causes of racial inequality.
What does the experimental evidence say?

The Black Lives Matter protests and associated high profile cases of police violence against unarmed Black men has catalyzed a conversation about race in the US. However, the problem of racial inequality extends far beyond policing. Racial inequality has a deep history in the US and despite the struggles in the Civil Rights Era that resulted in (mostlylegal equality, there is still vast inequality between Black and white citizens in practice.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. While there is probably a handful of people who would deny this reality, most people across the political spectrum agree that there is racial inequality. Where people disagree is on the question of why there is racial inequality. There are essentially two competing narratives: 1) “Racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination,” or 2) “Racial inequality is due to differences in choices, culture, and/or values.” The former narrative emphasizes that the Black community has been (and continues to be) held back by racism on an individual and systemic basis. The latter narrative emphasizes the legal equality that Blacks and whites share and thus attributes disparities to differences across individuals in each group. 

Which of these narratives one endorses is highly correlated with their demographic group.  Conservatives (compared to liberals), are more likely to adopt the latter narrative. In other words, they are much less likely to agree that discrimination is the main reason Black people can’t get ahead. Similarly, whites (compared to Black Americans), are much less likely to cite discrimination, lower quality schools, and lack of jobs as the causes of inequality. The polls cited above also show there are similar racial and ideological splits on perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond this polling data, you can find plenty of examples of these narratives emerging out of their respective demographic camps. 

In the conservative magazine National Reviewattorney Peter Kirsanow argues that “individual behavior, family structure, perverse governmental policies, and culture” are largely ignored when discussing racial inequality. He also claims that “systemic, structural, or institutional racism” are over-emphasized by liberals in a politically convenient ploy. Popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro echoed this perspective here saying racial inequality, “has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with culture.” 

The alternative narrative, that racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination, is actually quite widespread in the news media even within outlets that are somewhat “down the middle”. For example, this USA Today article connects disparities in police violence and coronavirus deaths to systemic racism. The author argues that aspects of racial inequality are “intimately connected” and points to a legacy of discrimination as the cause of current housing disparities between white people and Black people. For a more liberal example, this Mashable article succinctly claims that systemic racism “is everywhere” and also links it to racial disparities related COVID-19 and high profile policing deaths. 

Experimental research

The statistics about racial inequality are basically correlations. Being Black is correlated with a variety of disadvantages; being white is correlated with a variety of advantages. So how can we understand what causes these advantages and disadvantages? Well, how do scientists typically establish causation? The best tool scientists have to determine cause and effect is the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). In an RCT, researchers randomly assign participants to a treatment condition, where they undergo some sort of intervention, or to a control condition. Since the assignment to condition is random, we can assume that any differences between the treatment and control conditions are the result of the intervention, since without it the groups would be the same. This methodology is the gold standard for investigating the cause of something. However, in many cases, there are practical and ethical reasons for why we cannot do the experiment we would need to do in order to fully establish causality.

As an example, take the assertion that racism is responsible for an academic achievement gap between Black people and white people. This claim could be experimentally tested by exposing white and Black children to racism against their groups, and then testing their  academic achievements. We would want to control for other factors, so the children would need to be moved to three isolated communities that are treated identically except for how they are treated in terms of their race. In one community, the white children would be taught about the long history of their subjugation and then be subject to systemic and individual discrimination. In another community the Black kids would get this treatment. In the control, there would be no racial inequality or discrimination. We would test them every year for ten years to see what the effect of racism is on the achievement gap. Clearly, the above example would be an ethical nightmare. There is no way to (ethically) randomly assign the things that are said to cause racial disparities we see in society. We cannot randomly assign people to be white or black, or to be subjected to racism and discrimination, or to have specific values and culture. However, scientists have found ways to conduct ethical experiments to test the effects of discrimination. 

For example, consider disparities such that compared to white people, Black people were less likely to be employedmore likely to be in poverty, have about 10% of the net worth of whites, and have half the median income of white people. Is there any experimental evidence that this situation is the result of discrimination? The quick answer is yes. Hiring discrimination occurs when equally qualified Black people are less likely to receive a job offer than their white counterparts. Researchers study this phenomenon through what are called “hiring audit studies”. In these hiring audit studies, researchers respond to job advertisements with 2 job applications that are identical in every way except the race of the applicant (usually using a Black-coded name like “Jamal” vs a white-coded name like “Steve”). In 2017, a meta-analysis representing data from 28 previous hiring audit studies found evidence of racial bias in hiring such that whites receive 36% more callbacks than identically qualified Black people. They also did not find evidence that this level of discrimination had changed over the last 25 years. Worse, these researchers also found that discrimination doesn’t stop at callbacks, even after getting callbacks, black applicants face further discrimination. These experiments demonstrate that discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

Over this same period of time, dozens of similar audit studies have been completed to detect housing discrimination, where Black prospective home-buyers or renters are denied housing while identically qualified white buyers or renters are welcomed to the neighborhood. In these studies, there are white and Black auditors who submit housing applications with identical information, except the person submitting the application is either Black or white. Often, the auditors are even trained to give the same responses during interactions with realtors. Again, scientists here try to control for every other conceivable factor besides race. In a meta-analysis representing 72 housing audit studies in the US, Canada, and Europe, researchers evaluated the level of housing discrimination since the 70s. During the 70s through the 90s, Black people were about 50% less likely to receive a positive response from a housing application compared to whites. Other studies showed that discrimination decreased after the 90s so that Blacks are only 25% less likely to receive a positive response on a housing application. The most recent estimate shows that Black people today are still about 15% less likely to get those positive responses compared to whites. While it has decreased, this current level of discrimination still represents a significant difference in how equally qualified Black people and white people are treated. Worse still, this decrease has coincided with other forms of housing discrimination such as on Airbnb where applications from accounts with Black names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical white accounts. Homeownership is an effective way of building wealth, particularly for low-income and minority households, so housing discrimination has likely had important downstream effects that have contributed to economic inequality across the generations.

Economic discrimination between equally qualified Black and white people is found in a variety of domains, such as car purchasinggetting home insurancegetting a mortgage, and even hailing a taxi! The discrimination Black Americans face is sickening–literally. A 2015 meta-analysis documented that experiences with discrimination and racism in day-to-day life predicts poorer health for Black people. Data taken from 293 studies showed that reported racism predicted both poorer mental and physical health. Even within the doctor’s office, patients cannot escape the effects of racial discrimination. An audit-style study was done with physicians making recommendations about Black and white patients portrayed by actors with identical histories. Black patients were less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving treatment compared to whites with the same clinical presentation. Similar audit work has found racial discrimination towards middle class Black patients in the mental health context. Doctors have been found to harbor a racial bias that Black people are less sensitive to pain (which is likely the opposite of what is true) and thus under-prescribe pain medication to Black patients. But the effects of bias extend beyond just pain treatment. A 2015 systematic review found that racial bias of medical professionals predicts racial disparities in treatment decisions, treatment adherence, patient-provider interactions, and ultimately patient health.

discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

The evidence is clear*: discrimination does indeed cause racial disparities. It’s important to recognize that these studies demonstrate discrimination between otherwise identical people. In the audit studies I reviewed above Black people weren’t discriminated against for being poor, or uneducated, or having a criminal background. All of that is controlled for in these studies. These studies demonstrate in no uncertain terms that Black Americans in the modern era are being discriminated against simply because of their race. As discussed above, racial discrimination accounts for some significant portion of disparities in employment, income, wealth, housing, transportation, and medical treatment. Black people are even discriminated against in the primary domain they have to meaningfully influence the policies that could change this situation: voting

But, what about the conservative position that individual factors cause racial disparities? We run into a bit of a problem at this point; while researchers have cleverly devised a way to experimentally measure the effects of discrimination through audit studies, there is no way of auditing the effects of culture, choices, motivation and/or values. To credit the conservative position, psychologists study individual differences in choices, cultural orientation, values, or behavior, and we know that these things play a role in success. But again, this is correlational. How do we know if these individual factors play a causal role in racial inequality? 

Well, in some sense this topic is at the center of a lot of academic research. Researchers in psychology often cannot experimentally change the systematic factors related to racial disparities (like policy-makers could), so they come up with interventions to influence characteristics of individuals to help alleviate gaps. For example, Black students who enter college often do not feel a sense of belonging and this lack of perceived belonging is linked to worse academic outcomes for Black students compared with white students. Researchers designed an intervention where participants read stories from other students that encouraged participants to think about belonging as something that develops over time and strengthens as you make connections with students and faculty. This simple one-time intervention was replicated across a wide variety of schools and resulted in a 31-40% decrease in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. 

At the heart of this approach is seeing individual differences as a component of a recursive cycle, where disadvantage facilitates the development of tendencies (such as a lack of belonging and the resulting vulnerability to failure or academic disengagement) that maintain or exacerbate disadvantage (which reinforce negative tendencies, etc). This cycle means that something like feeling you don’t belong is both a result and cause of racial inequality. This theory has led to wonderful scientific findings! For example, there was a 2009 intervention where students participated in a series of writing tasks to reflect on their values. In the task, students wrote about the personal importance of a self-defining value. This simple task in early seventh grade resulted in Black students having a stronger belief in themselves to fit in and succeed in school. These changes in the psychological orientation of students accounted for a significant decrease in the white/Black achievement gap by 8th grade graduation. There are plenty more examples of these types of interventions throughout psychology. 

Thus, the conservative viewpoint is partly correct: choices, values, and behavior can lead to differences in terms of who gets into college, who succeeds academically, and who becomes successful. I suspect most liberals and academics would agree with this view but do not agree that this view should be used to dismiss discrimination and systemic problems. Racial differences in choices, values, and behavior may help maintain and exacerbate racial inequality but we need to ask, “where do racial differences in choices, values, and behavior come from?” The academic answer is that they emerge from contexts that are deeply related to discrimination in the past and in the present. Furthermore, by understanding the origins of racial differences in behavior we can more effectively develop interventions that mitigate these differences. But it’s important to note that interventions like the belonging intervention are attempts to address the symptoms of racial inequality; they do not deal with inequality at its source by ameliorating historical injustice or correcting current discrimination (as found in the hiring and housing studies discussed above).

In summary

Taking in all of the research discussed above, the role of discrimination in racial inequality has such a strong foundation in historical and empirical facts that denying the role of discrimination is to depart from a scientifically informed view. On the other hand, the notion that racial inequality is at least in part due to values, behavior, and choices is true to some extent as well. Indeed, this is at the heart of much of the research about how to close achievement gaps between Black and white students. However, the perspective found in academic journals is communicated in quite different terms compared to some conservative arguments. Scientists and historians know that racial disparities in values, behaviors, choices, and even culture have emerged in a continually discriminatory environment with intergenerational disadvantages that maintained racial inequality (the subject of another article of mine). My investigation suggests that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive

If someone uses the argument that individual differences in values, culture, or behavior accounts for racial disparities as a way to deny discrimination as a cause, they are no longer aligned with the scientific evidence; we know discrimination is real, is currently happening, and is part of the story of inequality. If they cite individual differences as a way of blaming disadvantaged groups for their own disadvantage, they are also not aligned with the scientific evidence; we know that many of these individual differences emerge from a historical and current context of inequality that Black communities have had minimal control over. On the other hand, if someone is denying any role for individual differences, they have also departed from the relevant science. 

In this era of extreme partisanship and misinformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that our ideological perspectives are tempered and informed by the scientific evidence. The causal story behind racial inequality is extremely complex; I have barely scratched the surface in this article. We should leave no tool out of our tool box in order to solve the problem of racial inequality. We need people to investigate and study discrimination, the individual differences that account for inequality, the contexts that give rise to the individual differences, and the systematic forces at work. We also need science-based interventions and advocacy to address both the causes and symptoms of racial inequality. The resulting research should guide our thinking about these topics and help us find solutions. That means admitting the interplay between contexts and choices, between decisions and discrimination, and between history and the here-and-now. 

*Update 1/5/2021: For the sake of time, I left off the interesting academic debate about audit studies. These critiques have not borne out as particularly effective (also see here).

Originally posted on the Pipette Pen
Peer edited by Melody Kessler and Rachel Ernstoff
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Racial inequality is real. Here is the scientific evidence.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. There are many studies documenting the disparities that exist between Blacks and whites in the United States. The following is a list of evidence for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. This list is a “living document” that will be regularly updated to incorporate new scientific data as it comes in (or as I become aware of it). Please use this resource to make evidence-based contributions to discussions about racial inequality in the United States. 

Also, use the button on the right side of the screen to subscribe to my blog to get notified of my upcoming articles on the causes of racial inequality in the United States. There are compelling scientific reasons to see that racial inequality today is linked to past inequality. There is also compelling evidence from experimental research that current discrimination plays a role in current racial inequality.

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Black and white disparities

Income, wealth, and jobs

  • 18.7% (see table 2 here in 2019) of Black Americans live in poverty, compared to 7.3% of white Americans. 
  • 32% of Black American children live in poverty, compared to 11% of white American children. 
  • 19.1% of Black households have an inability to obtain adequate nutritious food, compared to 7.9% of white households (as of 2019). 
  • Black households have about 10% of the median net worth compared to their white counterparts (as of 2016).
  • Black household median annual income is nearly half that of white households (as of 2018).
  • 15.4% of Black Americans are unemployed, compared to 10.1% white Americans (as of 2020). 
  • 1% of fortune 500 company CEOs are Black, despite Black people making up 13% of the American population (as of 2020).
  • 36% of blacks have money in the stock market, compared to 60% of whites (as of 2017).
  • Typical Black households have 46% of the retirement wealth of typical white households (as of 2016).


  • 47% of Black families own a home, compared to 76% of white families (as of 2nd quarter 2020). 
  • 20% of black households are extremely low-income renters, compared to 6% of whites (as of 2019).
  • 40% of the homeless population is Black, despite only representing 13 percent of the general population (as of 2019).
  • 790 in 10,000 loans for black households were foreclosed upon, while only 452 in 10,000 loans for non-Hispanic white households were foreclosed upon (between 2005-2008).


  • 80% of K-12 educators are white, while only 6.3% are Black.
  • In a 2016 study, Black and white teachers were asked to identify problematic behaviors in a group of children (there were in fact no problematic behaviors in the video). Eye-tracking methods showed that they excessively monitored the black boy in the video.
  • 64% of Black American children attend low income (i.e. Title 1) schools, compared to 33% of white American children.
  • 37% of Black Americans age 18 – 24 enrolled in college in 2018, compared to 42% of whites
  • 22.8% of Black Americans age 25 – 29 graduate from college, compared to 42.1% of white Americans (as of 2017).
  • 42% of Black college students are first generation (i.e. parents didn’t attend or graduate from college), compared to only 28% of white students (as of 2012).
  • 30% of Black and Hispanic students with 3.5 or higher high school GPAs attend community colleges, compared to 22% of white students (as of 2009).
  • 72% of Black students go into debt to pay for their education, compared to 56% of white students (as of 2016).
  • 5% of professors, associated professors, assistance professors, instructors, lecturers, or other faculty are black compared to 70% that are white (as of 2017).


Something to note about police statistics, is there is often not national data that can be used to understand racial disparities. Instead, specific police departments share data with a specific group of researchers. Thus many of the data points below are not taken from the US as a whole.

  • Unarmed Black people are killed by police disproportionately.
  • The likelihood of incarceration was higher for Black people at every level of wealth compared to the white likelihood.
  • Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates, but Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses (as of 2015).
  • A 2017 study of 20,000,000 traffic stops in North Carolina revealed that Black drivers are 95% more likely to be stopped (after controlling for amount of driving), and when stopped are 115% more likely to be searched.
  • A 2017 study of 4.5 million police stops in North Carolina revealed that blacks are more likely to be searched in comparison to whites even when controlling for the rates of carrying contraband.
  • Minneapolis police use force against black people at 7 times the rate of whites between 2015 and 2020.
  • Black Americans (from nationally representative data) are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested over a misdemeanor than whites, a trend that is remarkably consistent from 1980 until 2015.
  • Black Americans (from a national study) were the targets of 39% of SWAT deployments in comparison to whites only making 20% (numbers disproportional to their population).
  • Wrongful conviction data based on the National Registry of Exonerations as of 2017.
    • Based on exonerations, innocent black people are 7 times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.
    • African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.
    • African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims.
    • The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.
    • On average black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer.
  • Prosecution and sentencing in NYC from 2010-2011
    • Blacks were 10% more likely to be detained before their trial compared to whites, while controlling for other factors, including charge seriousness and prior record.
    • Blacks were 20% more likely to be detained before a misdemeanor trial compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 9% more likely to have their cases dismissed compared to whites.
    • For Blacks sentenced for misdemeanors, they are 47% more likely to received custodial offers (i.e. serving reduced time or time-served in pre-trial) as opposed to non-custodial sentences (i.e. community service, probation, and fines) compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 5% more likely (compared to whites) to be sentenced to prison, after controlling for a range of factors. This can be broken down further into the following:
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor person offenses.
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor drug offenses.
      • 14% more likely for felony drug offenses.
  • In a 2011 study of 5 counties in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois, Black Americans were held at a higher bail compared to whites, even after controlling for failure to appear in court.
  • In a 2014 study of 4 counties in Texas, Iowa, New York, and Oregon, Black probationers had higher odds (18 – 39%) of having their probation revoked, even after controlling for available factors (such as crime severity, criminal history, drug/alcohol problems, risk assessment scores, etc.).
  • A 2016 report shows that 45% of prisoners in solitary confinement (i.e. restricted housing) are black despite making 40% of the prison population.
  • Using data from 1973 until 2019, defendants were 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty when they are convicted of killing a white victim than when convicted of killing a black victim.
  • Black people are 5% more likely to receive the death sentence after controlling for culpability (as of 1998).
  • 1,730 per 100,000 (about 1.7%) Black Americans are incarcerated, compared to 270 per 100,000 (about .3%) white Americans. For reference, Blacks make up about 13.4% of the population, compared to 76.3% of the population


  • In 2013, 18.8% of (nonelderly) Black Americans were uninsured while 12.3% of white Americans were. In the years since the ACA was implemented, this gap has closed a bit such that in 2019, 11.5% of Black and 7.5% of white Americans were uninsured.
  • 11.4 per 1,000 Black American infants die in childbirth, compared to 4.9 per 1,000 white American infants (as of 2015).
  • The likelihood of a Black mother dying during childbirth is 4-5 times higher than for white women (as of 2016).
  • Racial/ethnic minorities are 1.5 – 2 times more likely than whites to have most of the major chronic diseases.
  • Age-adjusted death rate for non-Hispanic Black Americans is 876.1 per 100,000 compared to 753.2 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans as of 2015.
  • Black mortality rate in 2015 is 16% higher than white mortality rate (a drop from 33% in 1999).
  • Black mortality rate for people under 65 is 40% higher than the white mortality rate.
  • Black American life expectancy is 75.5 years compared to 78.9 years for white Americans as of 2015.
  • Racial health disparities accounted for over $1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) in direct and indirect costs for the years 2003-2006.
  • Black people breathe 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white residents (as of 2019). 
  • Black children have lead poisoning levels 2-6 times higher than white children (as of 2010).
  • Black women of reproductive age have nearly 3 times the level of cadmium poisoning compared to their white counterparts (after controlling for other variables; as of 2006).

Democratic influence

Originally posted 9/17/2020 and last updated 1/21/2021