Kirwan experts say economic status is not the defining factor in housing inequality, it’s racism. Credit: Riss Twig | Assistant photo editor

Income and class inequality has long been thought to be the reason for household status, however a Harvard study found this assertion wrong. It’s racism.

Researchers from Harvard, Stanford and the U.S. Census Bureau found that young black males earn less than young white males, and the culprit for this inequality is racism, according to two experts who work at Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

The study tracked incomes of 20 million people born between 1978 and 1983 for 30 years and published the findings in March. It showed at every economic starting point black males had lower rates of employment and lower wages than white males. Kyle Strickland, a senior legal analyst at Kirwan, said the revelation dispels a widely held belief that racial inequality stems from black children disproportionately coming from poor households.

“It really is a great study in the support of what we’ve been arguing for a very long time, which is that race plays a hugely determinative role in your life outcomes,” he said. “And not just race, let me very clear about that — It’s really racism.”

Researchers tested multiple hypotheses and found the best predictor for the severity of the income gap was the levels of explicit racism and implicit racial basis in an area.

Gaps for black and white males and “racial bias measures have the strongest correlations with black boys’ income ranks,” the study states.

Strickland said individuals reluctant to acknowledge the effects — or even the existence — of racism in America should note the study’s massive scale.

“If black boys are growing up in wealthy families and are still more likely to be incarcerated or more likely to fall into poverty or the lower fifth [of the economic class] than white boys… that really highlights exactly how downward mobility works,” he said.

Though the study shows individual incomes for black women are comparable to white women, Strickland said black women earn less when measuring household income and other areas. Racism aimed at black women also has manifested itself in other ways such as maternal health, he said.

“Black women are more likely to die from giving birth,” he said. “We know that racism and race and discrimination and those stressors play a role.”

Criminal justice and educational policies designed to marginalize minority communities account for much of the effect, Strickland said, and they largely persist because implicit racial biases cause people to contribute to them.

Kelly Capatosto, a senior research associate at Kirwan who studies implicit racial bias, said people often unconsciously categorize members of other races into groups.

“A lot of times [people develop attitudes] based on these overarching stereotypes or generalized or incomplete information,” she said. “That’s when these erroneous implicit biases really start to form.”

Bias usually shows up when individuals make split-second decisions or use their own discretion in subjective situations, Capatosto said.

Research has shown racial inequity arises when authority figures rely on bias to make decisions, Capatosto said. One study revealed teachers were more likely to recommend stricter discipline and assess the behavior of black students as being worse than white students for identical infractions.

“That’s because teachers were implicitly attributing the behavior of black students to a larger, more pervasive behavior problem,” she said.

Individuals often associate having an implicit racial bias with having a racist ideology, Strickland said, and that fear causes them to deny a bias they might have.

“We don’t want to admit it that we hold these biases because we think it means we’re bad,” he said. “It’s important to say that if you hold these biases you’re not necessarily a bad person.”

However, individuals who fail to account for their biases risk engaging in behavior that perpetuates racism, Capatosto said.

“The implicit biases that we form about race are only happening because of the context of living in this broader societal world that we live in that openly endorses racism,” she said. “We need to be accountable for that behavior.”

By becoming aware of biases an individual might have, they can take steps to ensure they don’t inform their behavior.

Capatosto said reviewing decisions and replacing subjectivity with objective policies can help control for bias. Individuals can reduce their own bias by forming meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, she said.

Strickland said he hopes the study mobilizes people to advocate for racial justice.

“I think we should be angry, but not just if you’re a young black person,” he said. “This is not who we say we are as a society. This is not who we want to be.”