“Reparations?”: A case study of White Americans’ psychology toward past racial wrong-doing
Juneteenth 2019. This was the date set for the first hearing on a House Committee bill that would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and systemic oppression on the lives of African-Americans today—and to consider reparations as a path for remedy. Initially, my ears perked in reflex to the news. As an immediate secondary reflex however, my soul braced itself for the inevitable. To be clear, I do not know all Black people, do not represent all Black people, and definitely do not speak for all Black people. But all Black people will tell you that to strike up a conversation with a random White American stranger about Civil Rights, slavery, and especially—and I mean especially—reparations, the risk of one or more of the following phrases being used is high: “that happened such a long time ago,” “we’ve made a lot of progress since then/things are not as bad as it was [insert any number] of years ago,” and/or “I don’t feel that people should be held responsible for something that they were not alive for.” On cue the day prior to the hearing, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s statement regarding the bill hit 3-for-3:
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, we elected an African-American president. I think we always are a work in progress, but no one currently alive was responsible for that.”
Slavery happened a long time ago? Check. Look at all the racial progress we’ve made since slavery? Check, check. How can we be held accountable for something that we were not actually alive to do? Check, check, check.
If you think that Sen. McConnell is alone in this view, you may be surprised to know that most White Americans agree with him. Polls show that a majority of White Americans stand with Sen. McConnell on the issue of reparations, even among younger generations. Compared to 78% of young Black Americans between the ages of 18 and 36 who support the creation of a committee to study reparations, only 45% of young White Americans do so (GenForward, 2019).
In case you are a bit unfamiliar with what the commission would actually entail, let’s quickly talk about it. Members of the House of Representatives put forth H.R. 40 bill entitled “The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The stated purpose of the proposed commission is to “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.” Specifically, the commission would seek to identify:
1. The role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery
2. Forms of discrimination in the public and private sector against freed slaves and their descendants
3. Lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans
In essence, the committee is structured to look into how discrimination and oppression of Black Americans in the past may still hold influence on the lives of Black Americans today. On the surface, these goals sound straightforward and seem like content that should be covered in high school education. However, there is mounting evidence that (a) most Americans do not have an accurate sense of the role of past oppression on the lives of Americans today and (b) White Americans are psychologically motivated to regard this history as irrelevant to today.
Americans really don’t know U.S. history—and this matters.
As a kid, I used to really hate history in school. My social studies and U.S. history classes felt more like tests of rote memorization of important dates and events. I felt like there was little attention paid to why each date or event may matter collectively. More pressing, maybe, was that as a Black student, people who looked like me were either slaves, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, Jr. And more frustratingly, these already limited stories were further limited to either the three to five days dedicated to slavery in the history curriculum or the annually recycled Black history month celebrations.
It was not until my first year at Stanford University, that history came to life for me. I took a course dual-listed in African & African-American Studies and Linguistics on the topic of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), colloquially known as Ebonics. Besides actually being one of the most difficult courses I took in college (I challenge anyone to learn and memorize the phonetic alphabet and its structures in 3 weeks), the role of historical context and its connections to current day life was made starkly clear. Throughout the course, we studied the linguistic development of AAVE through detailing the experiences and exposures of African peoples from pre-Transatlantic Slave Trade to 90’s Hip-hop and Black media. My group’s final project was an analysis of the vernacular used by Tyler Perry’s popular Madea character. This was my first classroom experience of U.S. history where, instead of dates and siloed events, I engaged with interwoven stories, multiple perspectives, and took a critical lens to the negative and positive aspects of U.S. history. Furthermore, I felt that the representation of African-Americans in U.S. history was multi-dimensional, central, and inherently important to the foundations of the country.
Given the stark contrast between my positive experience in my first ethnic studies course in college and the entirety of my K-12 education, it was unsurprising to hear that my home state of Missouri recently received a failing grade in regards to how it taught more modern Black history. In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) graded how well each U.S. state supported and included K-12 standards for teaching the modern civil rights movement. Missouri received a score of 14 out of 100; the only southern state to perform worse than Missouri was Sen. McConnell’s state of Kentucky (SPLC, 2014). What did surprise me however was that in a 2018 SPLC report that graded state standards toward teaching slavery, my educational experiences in Missouri were shown to be consistent with a nationwide educational practice in the U.S.—the treatment of Black American history as separate and disconnected from today (SPLC, 2018). The 2018 SPLC report concluded:
“…[W]hat students are taught about slavery is fragmentary, without context, and worst of all, sentimentalized or sanitized…In all, the [SPLC’s “Teaching Tolerance”] report comes as a stunning indictment of how the U.S. education system approached the teaching of this important subject. One of its subtexts is that history is taught as a story of progress, even as current events—such as the rollback of portions of the Voting Rights Act, discrimination in the criminal justice system, and the continuing segregation of schools and neighborhoods—show how slavery’s legacy reverberates throughout public policy today.”
In line with these reports about the U.S. educational system, psychological research provides evidence that these educational approaches to not critically engaging with Black history are mirrored in the psychology of White Americans. Findings in a recent study by Norton and Sommers (2011) illustrate that White Americans seem to discount the lingering impact of past racial discrimination on the state of Black Americans today. In the study, researchers asked Black and White American respondents to rate the level of racial discrimination that Black people and White people faced during each decade since the 1950s. The study showed that Black and White respondents agreed on extreme levels of prejudice that Black people faced in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, this is where the agreement ended.
The study highlighted that White respondents perceived that more racial progress had been made for Black people since the 1950s and 1960s than did Black respondents. Specifically, White respondents perceived lower levels of anti-Black discrimination in 2010 than did Black respondents. In fact, White respondents reported that White people faced more racial discrimination in 2010 than did Black people. Thus, according to White Americans, the U.S. has made a substantial amount of racial progress in its treatment of Black Americans since periods of more explicit discrimination in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, how is it possible for Black and White Americans to agree on the extent of past racial discrimination but highly disagree on the amount of racial progress made since?
“Racial discrimination? But we’ve come such a long way”
The racial differences in the perceived amount of racial progress made in the U.S. are in part due to how dominant and marginalized racial/ethnic groups use the past to make judgments of the present. A 2006 study by Eibach & Erhlinger tested whether racial differences in perceptions of racial progress were due to taking a “Where we were” or “Where we should be” orientation. These orientations represented different mindsets towards racial progress: whether progress toward racial equity was judged based on perceptions of how much racial mistreatment has improved over time (i.e., where we were), versus how racially equitable society is today, regardless of where we started (i.e., where we should be).
The researchers asked White and ethnic minority respondents how much progress toward equality had been made for racial minorities since the 1960s. Their results suggested that ethnic minority respondents anchored their judgments using a “Where we should be” orientation; that is when asked about racial progress, ethnic minorities compare the present condition of racial minorities to ideals of racial equality. In contrast, White respondents anchored their judgment of racial progress using a “Where we were” orientation; that is when asked about racial progress, White Americans compare the present conditions and treatment of racial minorities to past conditions and treatment.
Revisiting his original statement, Sen. McConnell’s response does in fact align with a “Where we were” orientation—a comparison using the past to reflect more positively on the present. Sen. McConnell first references the progress made from slavery, fighting a Civil War. Then Sen. McConnell references the progress made from Jim Crow, passing key Civil Rights legislation. And finally Sen. McConnell references probably the most commonly used signal of progress towards a “post-racial world,” Barack Obama, electing an African-American president. Thus, in his reply, Sen. McConnell does acknowledge that past racial injustices have occurred. Yet, he attempts to draw focus to “how far we have come” as a country to support his argument that there is no need to look into whether additional action is necessary to achieve racial equity. Okay, but what motivates this racial difference in how the past is used and referenced? Why are Black Americans more likely to focus on progress toward equity while White Americans are more likely to look to the past to perceive the present in a more positive light?
Sen. McConnell’s focus on past actions that, on the surface, signal progress away from the “original sin of slavery” aligns with broader motivations by dominant groups to reduce one’s own sense of connection to past injustices. Eric Knowles and colleagues (2014) suggest that Whiteness in America serves as one of these identities salient for White Americans. This psychological motivation manifests itself both individually and structurally.
“Not my history, plus how long ago was this again?”
At an individual level, evidence of this motivation can be found in how accurately White American’s remember historical injustices. A 2013 study by Rotella & Richeson suggests that White Americans are motivated to forget historical injustices committed by their in-group. In one study, the researchers assigned White Americans to read a historical passage describing the atrocities committed against Native Americans. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers modified one key phrase in the passage. Half of the White participants read a passage where the perpetrators of the atrocities were referred to as “American colonists,” who are a historical in-group for White Americans. The other half of White participants read the same passage, but the perpetrators were referred to as “European settlers,” who are less readily a historical in-group for White Americans. By changing this phrase, the experimenters aimed to manipulate how relatable the perpetrators were to the participant. After reading the passage, the researchers asked participants to recall the passage to the best of their ability. White Americans who read about American colonists recalled less of the passage and were less likely to correctly identify the perpetrators as Americans.
This individual misremembering of history has severe implications for structural change. Research by Nelson and colleagues (2013) found that compared to Black Americans, White Americans are on average less accurate and knowledgeable about the historical racism Black people faced in the U.S. The researchers found that people who lacked this historical knowledge were also less likely to perceive racism in today’s more systemic forms of discrimination, such as racial profiling of police or the banning of affirmative action in college admission decisions. Thus, the researchers show that White Americans’ lower critical knowledge of Black history compared to Black Americans contributed to White Americans also perceiving less racism in systemic forms of discrimination in the U.S. In addition to knowledge, these researchers also highlight the importance of racial identity to White Americans. They also found that White Americans who feel more positively about their White identity perceive less racism in these same systemic forms of discrimination.
However, even in the case that historical events were remembered accurately, research suggests that individuals from dominant groups remember histories of past wrong-doing as happening longer ago in time. Moreover, this relegation of history to the more distant past is found to serve as a defense mechanism. Perceiving past in-group atrocities as further away in time can be beneficial for how one feels about one’s group membership and one’s own self-image. Knowing that one’s group has harmed another group can create a feeling of guilt, but feeling like it was a long time ago can make one feel better (e.g., “It’s been a while—things are different now”).
In a 2010 study, Peetz and colleagues studied factors influencing how Germans remembered the Holocaust in time and their support for further restorative action. The researchers found that being reminded of the Holocaust was a threat to Germans’ sense of collective identity. The researchers found that German participants lessened this threat to identity by perceiving the Holocaust to happen further away in time from the present day. This defensive strategy had the benefit of protecting their positive sense of national identity. However, this distancing incurred important costs for those harmed by the atrocities. Perceiving the Holocaust further away in time reduced German participants’ willingness to support compensating Jewish people and other victims of the Holocaust. Further, the researchers found that this distancing of history was greater for Germans who felt unjustly blamed and burdened with the memory of the Holocaust.
“We can’t move forward if we are constantly thinking about the past.”
Collectively, these psychological studies highlight that White Americans do agree that past treatment of Black Americans was highly prejudicial and discriminatory. Yet, these studies also point to White Americans being strongly motivated to sever the ties between the historical treatment of Black Americans and the current state of Black Americans today. Reflected in his original statement, Sen. McConnell signaled a perception of slavery as inherently separate from the subsequent U.S. cultural terrorism, such as the Jim Crow era, and separate from the present state of Black Americans in the U.S. Against Sen. McConnell’s wish to distance from this history, author Ta-Nehisi Coates responded by drawing attention to the Senate majority leader’s clear connection to these histories during his testimony at the H.R. committee hearing:
“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well as he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them…while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.”
For Black Americans, seeing history as interconnected to and assimilated with the present helps to contextualize current circumstances in the broader arch of history (Jones, Leitner, Stolarksi, Fieulaine, van Beek, 2015). Salient in Stanford University’s African-American Studies Program is the idea of “Sankofa.” Derived from the Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Ghana, Sankofa means “go back and get it,” it represents moving forward while always critically remembering and learning from the past. This attention to history implicates that for Black Americans, we are the product of our ancestor’s hope and work-ethic, or that we “stand on the shoulders” of our ancestors.
Yet, what does fully embracing the idea that we all stand on the actions and full history of one’s racial group mean for White Americans?
First, embracing the notion that one stands on the shoulders of one’s ancestors and group history may elicit negative feelings, especially when thinking about past racial wrong-doing. This has been illustrated in high-profile cases of White Americans managing their ties to explicitly racist actions of their ancestors. In 2015, actor Ben Affleck received heavy criticism for how he tried to manage his guilt of having slave-owning ancestors. In the then-popular PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. hosted a sit-down with celebrities where together they would explore their family ancestry as a result of in-depth background research and genealogy tests. In fact, several White celebrities on the show were found to have connections to past slave-owners. However, in the now infamous and highest profile instance, actor Ben Affleck secretly requested for the show to omit that his great-great-great grandfather owned slaves. Dr. Gates and the show’s producers did in fact “scrub” this portion of Affleck’s family history—an action that when made public nearly resulted in the show’s cancellation. The content and manner of Affleck’s request illustrates how feeling connected to histories of in-group wrongdoing may elicit feelings of guilt or shame about one’s own personal and family identity, and what it means to be White in the U.S.
Second, and maybe more important, is that embracing the idea that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and group history challenges the notion that we Americans are wholly self-made. To acknowledge one’s connection to the past actions and histories of our direct and indirect ancestors suggests that we are, in part, a product of someone else’s past actions; this idea stands in direct contrast to the most foundational idea of the United States—the American Dream. Per this foundational U.S. cultural narrative, we Americans are and should be solely the product of our own work ethic and our bootstrap-pulling ability. Granted, this key tenet gets complicated quickly when one thinks about the legacy of handing down assets and wealth across generational lines. Any acknowledgement of the transfer of generational wealth immediately suggests that other factors besides individual hard-work is responsible for our, we Americans’, trajectory.
But, this key distinction is what Knowles and colleagues (2014) identified as a critical pathway to move forward as a country and to garner support for reparative actions among White Americans. In their theory of how White Americans manage a privileged identity, the idea of White privilege threatens the entrenched belief that hard-work is solely responsible for one’s positive life outcomes. For White Americans, to admit that one has racial privilege feels like a dismissal or discounting of the individual hard-work and effort given to attain one’s positive life outcomes. The authors argue that instead of thinking about privilege and hard-work as an either/or, privilege and hard-work should be considered as factors that both contribute to positive life-outcomes. Critically, the researchers uphold that White Americans should consider how both hard-work and group privilege contribute to their own position in society. Further, they argue that if White Americans want to truly uphold the key ideal of the American Dream—that hard-work brings success—it is necessary to dismantle White privilege; and, this dismantling includes the restoration of groups disadvantaged by past atrocities committed by the United States.
Towards acknowledgment that we are all impacted by our collective history as Americans, regardless of work ethic
During his testimony, Coates’ echoes this sentiment in his criticism of Sen. McConnell and suggests that inherently, we as Americans are all collectively connected to the past.
“Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: Americans should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations…we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach…the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”
No American can be truly separated from history, nor can they deny how the cumulative impact of the laws and policies of legal, occupational, educational, and financial institutions have long impacted Americans differently simply due to the color of their skin.
The great grandson of an American slave, my grandfather was born free in 1933 but was still unable to attend certain schools because of state laws in the South; Mitch McConnell Jr. was born 9 years later in 1942. In 1958, as both of my parents were born, the Ku Klux Klan were still a threat to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life; McConnell was in high school and on a pathway to college. In 1975, my mother was one of the first Black students to integrate her high school in Anaheim, California; McConnell won his first election to public office two years later. In the mid 1980s my parents married during the height of the War on Drugs; Around this same time McConnell was elected to his first term as a U.S. Senator. In 1992, as I was just learning to crawl, Los Angeles responded to the acquitting of White police officers who beat Rodney King with riots; McConnell was in his second term as the Senator of Kentucky. And on my 20th birthday, Trayvon Martin had his life taken as a teenager walking home from a convenience store.
Just as the decisions we make today as individuals and as a country affect future generations, regardless of how hard members of those generations eventually work (e.g., climate change), two things are true for the circumstances of U.S. citizens today: hard work matters as well as the collective history of this country. If we truly and only want hard-work to matter in the lives of all U.S. citizens, then should it be a question of whether we, as Americans, are at least willing to investigate how and to what extent slavery and its cultural ramifications still play a role in our society today?
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