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Thinking Critically With Straightforward Talk on History of Racial Inequality

Amid tensions and debates surrounding the educational merit of critical race theory and African American Studies courses, Dr. Steven White is adding some potentially elucidating research data to the discussion.

White, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, and his co-author, research scientist Albert H. Fang recently published a paper, titled “Historical Information and Beliefs About Racial Inequality,” that addresses whether learning about history can prompt individuals to think in systemic ways about issues like racial inequality.

Steven WhiteSteven White"We're really interested in this bigger question of ‘to what extent it is possible to change people's attitudes about things like race’,” White says. “It's kind of a tough thing to change because people have strong views obviously. And we don't want to make the claim that we can radically change things in a simple way.”

White and Fang used specific historical examples of racial inequality, such as housing segregation coming out of the 1930s and '40s and exclusions from GI Bill benefits along racial lines.

“We sort of show at least some suggestive survey evidence that talking to people very explicitly and straightforwardly about these historical reasons why inequality persists can at least at the margins make people more open to thinking about race in a more structural way [and] taking inequality seriously,” says White, noting that the paper is but one study on the topic.

White began teaching at Syracuse in 2017. Before that, the Columbia Ph.D. graduate taught at Lafayette College for a few years. White says much of the research pertains to history — the effects of war, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights politics of the past. Fang looks at more modern-day topics, says White, who explains their research paper served as a way for two former graduate school colleagues to collaborate.

White says the two had begun talking about conducting such a project before “the big uproar” over so-called anti-critical race theory practices.

“Going into it, I guess I wasn't clear that we would find anything,” White says. “So, I was pleasantly surprised — not wholly shocked, but marginally, pleasantly surprised — that we found at least some positive effects that reading these op-ed style treatments about historical information regarding racial inequality did make people think about racial inequality as a more serious issue and made them think about it in more structural terms.

“It made me at least marginally hopeful that this sort of information can matter,” he continues.

White prefaces his comments saying the study was done in an experimental setting without exposure to opposing information, which may affect outcomes.

“We find compelling evidence that such arguments can increase beliefs in the existence of Black-white racial inequality and increase beliefs in structural causes of racial inequality, particularly among white Republicans and Independents,” the report states. “In addition, we find evidence that historical information can reduce racial resentment among these groups. Overall, our study provides evidence that exposure to historical information can induce greater systemic and historical thinking about contemporary racial inequalities in the United States.”

Overall, when trying to educate people on topics such as racial inequality, using specific examples instead of vague statements was key, White points out.

"There's a lot of debate about what kinds of historical information is useful,” White says. “And I think we would suggest that being very specific about the kind of concrete policy-type reasons that inequality exists. So, being as specific as possible [is useful]. I think people find that more persuasive than [are] vague or general sentiments.” 

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