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How Drawing Historical Parallels Influences Perceptions of the Present Day

Stack of old photos

In a piece for the NACLA Report on the Americas, The War on Drugs is the New Jim Crow, Graham Boyd wrote, “The war on drugs thus offers seamless continuity with the most shameful episodes of our past. Slaves were bound in plantations from which they could not escape. Now, it is prisons that deprive black men of their freedom.”

Representations of history such as these can help us to make sense of the present day. Looking at something confusing through the lens of something we already understand clarifies and allows us to elaborate on it.

Aerielle Allen, from the University of Connecticut, studies how history can help us make sense of the current day, with a specific focus on anti-Black racism.

In recent work, Allen and her colleagues found that both Black and White people who claim that they are familiar with incidents of anti-Black racism and who agree that historical racism parallels current racism tend to be more likely to rate modern day behavior as racist. The effect of seeing parallels was larger than the effect of familiarity with racist incidents. They similarly found that familiarity and endorsing parallelism had an approximately equal effect on socio-political engagement.

Drawing parallels between historical and current racism seems to cause changes in the perception of current racism.

To study this causal effect, Allen provided participants with one of three illustrations: one depicting a police officer standing by himself, one depicting a current-day police officer perpetrating violence against a Black man, and one depicting a historical figure perpetrating violence against a Black man. Participants who saw the illustration of historical violence agreed more strongly that external factors, such as structures and institutions, cause racism compared to participants who saw the illustration of the police officer alone.

Allen also found an important race effect. Overall, Black participants agreed that external factors (as opposed to internal factors) cause racism and agreed that racism is pervasive, more so than White participants.

Despite her positive findings, Allen recommends that we use these historical parallels with caution. Such parallels can potentially be disempowering and overwhelming for people of color or threatening to White people.

Written by: Barbara Toizer, PhD student at the University of Kansas

Session: Moving Backwards: Implications of Historical Racism on Combatting Racism, part of Unveiling Bias: Responding to Interpersonal, Institutional, and Systemic Discrimination, held Friday, February 28th, 2020.

Speaker(s): Aerielle Allen, University of Connecticut

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