Views on racism shaped by historical awareness

Which of these events actually happened?

For 40 years the U.S. government lied to black men in Alabama. They were told they were receiving free treatment for blood-borne diseases. In reality, researches were tracking the progression of syphilis in 300 men without actually treating them for the disease.

African-American Paul Ferguson was shot outside of his Alabama home for trying to integrate professional football.

Both seem plausible for civil rights movement-era Alabama, but only one is true: the first.

KU associate professor of psychology Glenn Adams posed these and other questions to students at three universities. The results show a strong connection between how well Americans understand history and how we view racism.

Adams co-authored a study with former doctoral students Jessica Nelson and Phia Salter, who is now an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. Their work points to a trend between the ability to recognize racism and an understanding of American history, specifically events involving racism.

“On one hand, what you know about the past influences who you are,” he said. “But on the other hand, the needs you have in the present define what you understand about the past.”

To study this phenomenon, the team tested 199 college students of European descent from Kansas University and 74 students from the historically black colleges of Howard University in Washington and Xavier University in Louisiana. The students were asked to determine whether statements about past incidents of racism were true or false. In addition to questions about historically documented racism, some questions were about believable but invented situations.

The results show that a strong understanding of the past correlates with ability to see racism in modern context. It also showed that blacks had a better understanding of past racism than whites. Regardless of ethnicity, those who answered incorrectly usually thought an actual event didn’t happen.

“They weren’t willing to say that some of those events of racism that actually happened did happen,” Adams said. “Either they weren’t sure or didn’t know about them.”

Adams said that those results may not be reflective of the black community as a whole, but more reflective of the culture of the two colleges tested. Because the schools are historically black colleges, students there may have been exposed to more black history than students at KU.

He said the larger goal of this and similar studies is to find out how people arrive at different understandings of the past. “I don’t know who we are unless I understand who we’ve been,” Adams said.