Researcher correlates awareness of racism to knowledge of U.S. history

Tue, 01/15/2013

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Brendan Lynch
KU News Service
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LAWRENCE  — A new investigation by researchers at the University of Kansas suggests that differences in how ethnic groups see racism could be due to differences in awareness about the severity of racism over the course of U.S. history.  

In this research, appearing today in the journal Psychological Science, African-Americans demonstrated more accurate knowledge of historically documented racism in the U.S. than did Americans of European descent. This gap in historical knowledge accounted in part for differing perceptions of racism among these groups, both at a systemic and an incident-specific level.Glenn Adams

“The remarkable phenomenon is not that people from ethnic and racial minority communities are aware of the history of American racism,” said Glenn Adams, associate professor of psychology at KU. “Instead, the remarkable phenomenon is the extent to which people in dominant or mainstream American society manage to remain ignorant of this history.”

Adams co-authored the paper with KU doctoral student Jessica Nelson and Phia Salter, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

They note that ethnic minorities’ perceptions of racism are at times treated as exaggerated or delusional. But theory and research from cultural psychology suggest that differences in how people perceive racism may occur because people from different groups have access to different knowledge. Thus, people from ethnic minority communities may see racism in current events because they have accurate historical knowledge of documented past incidents of racism, but people from the majority group may downplay racism in the same current events because they are less aware of documented past racism.

“We suspect that mainstream understandings of American history are cultural tools that have emerged to promote a positive sense of American identity at the expense of coming to terms with a problematic legacy of racism and oppression in American society,” said Adams.

To assess whether individuals from minority groups might be more attuned to the reality of racism, the researchers adopted methods from work in “signal detection theory.”

College students — 199 European-American students and 74 African-American students — completed a “black history” test in which they were asked to judge whether statements about past occurrences of racism were true or false. Some statements discussed well-documented incidents that experts agree are true, representing the factual signal. Other statements concerned incidents that were plausible but fabricated, representing the fictional noise.

The students also completed measures that assessed racial identification and their perceptions of both systemic racism and isolated incidents of racism.

The investigation found that historical knowledge was a positive predictor of accurate racism perception for both African-Americans and European-Americans.

However, as a group, African-Americans were more accurate than European-Americans in correctly identifying historically true events. Further analyses indicated that greater knowledge of historically documented racism partly explained the observed relationship between race and perceptions of racism.

The findings also suggest how social identity could influence perceptions of racism. African-Americans who reported greater relevance of racial identity perceived more racism, while European-Americans who reported greater relevance of racial identity perceived less racism. These associations were stronger for perceptions of systemic racism than for perceptions of racism in isolated incidents.

Just in time for Black History Month, this research underscores the importance of historical knowledge — and activities, like critical reflections during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, that highlight marginalized forms of historical knowledge — for understanding current events.



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Poet offers insights to Jayhawk experience through wordplay "Welcome to KU. Where questions rest, in stacks of answers from the past. …" Listen to Topher Enneking, a spoken word poet and former KU football player, as he weaves the experience of KU and its traditions through this storytelling and wordplay performance. Learn more about KU traditions at http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/. Welcome to KU. Where questions rest in stacks of answers from the past. Where dreams crawl out of bed And learn to walk Uphill both ways. Where freshmen stand on stilts And hang from the rafters, While the wheat waves In a fieldhouse Where the Phog rolls in Helping us to see Through the past into the future. Haunting hosts giving handouts in a heritage Too heavy to grasp til you add to it. So it may be born anew, Allowing our boots to stand in the ash of oppression’s hate But shine bright as the sun While war cries of warriors past Ring in our ears long after their battles are won. Memorials telling time, “you don’t have to stand still.” Because the top of the world Is just up that Hill. Where our natural history is an awe-struck echo Of world’s fair and equal Past, present and future, prelude and sequel. Where our flags fly above planes. Where we build in chalks that can’t be erased. Stone edifices made to last So you would walk Past their doors, down their halls And let your voice fill their room. Because only in empty silence can destruction loom. So stand tall. Wrap your arms around this crowd Sing our alma mater and sing it out loud. Let your voice sing in chorus and reach other nations Beckoning new Jayhawks to spark new collaborations Because you are the mortar that will hold these walls upright. Your future Your dreams are why Jayhawks did fight For the tradition before you Was merely prelude For what will come next now that you’re at KU.


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