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.
“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.