Lewis Davis, Union College – Racial Solidarity

lewis headshot wamc 2015Does your race affect your view of social status?

Lewis Davis, professor of economics at Union College, describes his research into racial solidarity and social status.

Lewis Davis is a Professor of Economics at Union College, where he teaches courses that investigate how economics interacts with culture, politics and ethics.  His research addresses a broad range of topics, including economic growth, income inequality, political economy, intellectual property rights, individualism, social solidarity and envy.  Prof. Davis has over twenty peer-reviewed and edited articles, with recent publications in the Journal of Economic GrowthEuropean Economic Review, and the Journal of Comparative Economics.  Prof. Davis serves on the editorial boards of the Eastern Economic Journal and the Review of Economics and Institutions.  Prof. Davis has a PhD in Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in Mathematics from Davidson College.  For more information, please visit his webpage:  http://muse.union.edu/davisl/.

Racial Solidarity


One of the striking things we’ve learned from research on happiness is that people care a great deal about social status.  Over and over again, studies find that people are happier the higher their income but less happy the higher the average incomes of their coworkers, neighbors, and other peers.  Driving my new BMW may make me happy, but I’m a bit less pleased when you pass me in your Porsche. 

But does envy really dominate our feelings for others? Is there no role for empathy or altruism?  Stephen Wu of Hamilton College and I find a more nuanced picture once we break the data down by race.  In particular, while Whites exhibit a familiar taste for social status, African Americans are happier when other African Americans do well, a finding we interpret as evidence of African American racial solidarity. 

Does this mean, then, that African American are unconcerned with social status, or that altruism is lacking for Whites?  Our research suggests otherwise.  We find that African American solidarity is stronger in states like Vermont, where African Americans make up a small share of the population, and weaker in states like Mississippi, where their share of the population is large.  And, a similar pattern holds for Whites:  concerns over social status are weaker in states where Whites comprise a lower share of the population.

Thus, it seems likely that feelings of racial solidarity and envy exist in both groups to some extent, with the balance depending at least in part on the social environment.  However, even accounting for differences in state population shares, racial solidarity is much stronger for African Americans, a result that may reflect a shared history of racial discrimination and the success of the collective action in the struggle for civil rights.