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Inside America's Polarized Views on Race

Decades after the civil rights movement, America still has not closed the massive gap in socioeconomic outcomes between white and Black households. One of the biggest reasons, it seems, is that Americans’ polarized views on the issue are extraordinarily resistant to change, even in the face of new information.

CAMBRIDGE – Debates about race have frequently dominated news coverage in (and about) the United States, often following acts of racial violence or legal proceedings against their perpetrators. But while Americans’ attention to issues of race continues to ebb and flow with the news, there seems to be little agreement among citizens and policymakers on what, if anything, to do about them.

One stark and long-standing racial disparity is visible in the differences in socioeconomic outcomes for Black and white Americans. Six decades after the civil rights movement, median Black household income in the US is still only 60% of median white household income, and the share of Black Americans living below the poverty line is more than twice that of white Americans. Average life expectancy in the US is 4.5 years shorter for Black men than for white men, and three years shorter for Black women relative to white women. While home ownership among African Americans rose between 1940 and 1970, it is still barely half the level of white home ownership today. And many of these racial gaps are likely to have widened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These disparities raise urgent political questions. What share of the US public recognizes the chasm, in terms of opportunities and outcomes, that exists between Black and white Americans? Might people agree that an active policy response is needed, but disagree on whether the response should focus on income-targeted redistribution or race-targeted interventions?

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