December 6, 2023

Amid tensions and debates surrounding the educational benefits of critical race theory and African American studies courses, Dr. Steven White to discuss some potentially clarifying research data.

White, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, and his co-author, scholar Albert H. Fang, recently published a paper titled “Historical Information and Beliefs About Racial Inequality,” which examines whether learning about history can lead individuals to to think systemically about issues like racial inequality.

Steven WhiteSteven White“We’re really interested in this larger question of how much it’s possible to change people’s attitudes about things like race,” White says. I don’t want to say that we can radically change things in a simple way.’

White and Fang used specific historical examples of racial inequality, such as housing segregation in the 1930s and 1940s and exclusion from GI Bill benefits along racial lines.

“We’ve shown at least some suggestive survey evidence that talking to people very explicitly and directly about these historical reasons why inequality persists can, at least marginally, make people more open to thinking about race in a more structured way.” [and] to take inequality seriously,” says White, noting that this article is just one study on the topic.

White began teaching at Syracuse in 2017. Prior to that, the Columbia Ph.D. graduate taught at Lafayette College for several years. White says much of the research is about history—the effects of war, Reconstruction, and civil rights politics of the past. Fang is looking at more modern topics, says White, who explains that their research paper served as a way for the two former graduate school colleagues to collaborate.

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

“When I went into it, I probably didn’t think we were going to find anything,” White says. “So I was pleasantly surprised—not completely shocked, but marginally, pleasantly surprised—that we found at least some positive effects that reading these op-ed-style historical information about racial inequality made people think about racial inequality as a serious problem and made them think about him in more structural terms.

“It gave me at least a little hope that this kind of information might matter,” he continues.

In his notes, White states that the study was conducted in an experimental setting without exposure to conflicting information that may influence the results.

“We find compelling evidence that such arguments can increase beliefs about the existence of black-white racial inequality and increase beliefs about the structural causes of racial inequality, particularly among white Republicans and independents,” the report said. “Furthermore, 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, using specific examples instead of vague statements was key when trying to educate people about topics like racial inequality, White points out.

“There’s a lot of debate about what historical information is useful,” says White. “And I think we would suggest that we be very specific about the kind of specific policy reasons why inequality exists. [is useful]. I think people find it more compelling than [are] vague or general moods.”

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