Race and Recession: Effects of Economic Scarcity on Racial Discrimination
When the economy declines, existing racial disparities typically expand, suggesting that economic scarcity may promote racial discrimination. To understand this pattern, we examined the effect of perceived scarcity on resource allocations to Black and White American recipients, and tested whether this effect depends on a decision maker’s motivation to respond without prejudice. We proposed that scarcity would lead to increased discrimination among those with relatively low internal motivation but not those high in internal motivation. Indeed, we found that when resources were framed as scarce (vs. abundant or a control condition), low-motivation participants allocated less to Black than White recipients, whereas high-motivation participants allocated more to Black than White recipients (Studies 1 and 2). This pattern was strongest when decisions could be made deliberatively (Study 3), and anti-Black allocation bias emerged even in a non-zero-sum context (Studies 4 and 5), suggesting a strategic bias directed against Black recipients rather than in favor of White recipients. These findings indicate that the psychological perception of scarcity can produce racial bias in the distribution of economic resources, depending on the motivations of the decision maker—an effect that may contribute to the increase in racial disparities observed during economic stress.