White Americans’ openness to black perspectives increasing

White Americans’ openness to black perspectives increasing

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Protestors lie on the ground with their hands behind their back in a call for justice for George Floyd in Times Square, New York, June 1, 2020. (AFP)

Last Friday was Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated among black Americans marking the end of slavery in the US. Many white Americans had either never previously heard of the day or knew little about it. However, in the context of historic shifts in white Americans’ attitudes toward racial issues and widespread protests over the killings of black Americans, Juneteenth attracted broader attention this year. 

In personal conversations, on social media and podcasts, and in the traditional media, many white Americans are asking why they know so little about black American history. Many are asking why they did not know about Juneteenth, the 1921 Tulsa massacre, the Great Migration, and much more.

One major factor is a lack of black history on the curriculum for many students. In the US, history standards for education are determined by states and localities, which leads to significant variations in the curriculum. Many Americans learned some key elements of black history, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and restricted voting rights, and the civil rights movement. However, they learned little if anything in school about the rollback of Radical Reconstruction; the decades of institutionalized violence and oppression of black Americans in the South; the Great Migration, in which millions of blacks fled the South; large-scale murders of black people, such as the 1919 Elaine massacre and the 1921 Tulsa massacre; and other tools designed to limit black Americans’ opportunities, such as the sharecropping system and the discriminatory housing program known as redlining. 

For American students today, there has been some improvement in both the mandatory and optional curricula. Many schools have special lessons and activities during February, which was nationally recognized as Black History Month in 1976. Some states have revised their history standards to include more comprehensive education on black history. Options to take black history courses are now more frequently available to some high school and college students. However, as a recent CBS News survey of state standards found, there is more work to do to ensure that young Americans receive a fuller education in black history.

An additional factor is the relative lack of public memorials to slavery and monuments to notable black historical figures. There are more than 700 monuments and statues to Confederate figures, but there are far fewer to help Americans remember the toll of slavery or to honor black leaders. This is important because such public monuments help people recognize key moments and people in their community’s history, and they highlight which principles and people are valued by the community. 

In recent years, there has again been some improvement on this issue, with an increase in memorials, monuments and museums to highlight the experience and contributions of black Americans. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016. A memorial to victims of lynching opened in Alabama in 2018. Some communities have erected memorials in recent years, such as statues memorializing slaves and honoring black figures in Virginia, Maryland and Georgia. Such developments will help spark conversations and improve future generations’ understanding of the black experience in the US. 

Many white Americans have had little exposure to black film and visual media that might help provide an understanding of black American perspectives. While black film has existed in various forms for decades, little of it “crossed over” to white audiences until the 1990s. Many older Americans grew up with very little, if any, exposure to films and TV shows that depicted black experiences through the lens of black Americans. The 1990s saw significant improvement in that area, but various trends in the entertainment industry slowed that down in the new millennium. More recent years have seen some change thanks to movies such as “Selma,” “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight,” and especially the blockbuster “Black Panther” — all of which had black directors and largely black casts and attracted diverse audiences. 

Many older Americans grew up with very little, if any, exposure to films and TV shows that depicted black experiences.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Another limiting factor is that many white Americans simply do not know many black people. A Public Religion Research Institute study found that 75 percent of white Americans say that their “network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white.” This partly reflects demographic realities. The US Census Bureau reports that 12.7 percent of the US population is black. But the black population is not evenly distributed throughout the country. More than half live in the South and, within the South, they tend to be heavily concentrated in specific counties. Outside of the South, black Americans tend to be concentrated in metropolitan areas. Therefore, many white Americans live in areas with very few black people. Multiple historical and socioeconomic factors, such as redlining and “white flight,” also result in many white Americans having little social or professional interaction with black people, even when they live in an area with a relatively large black population. 

An understanding of black history and current black experiences is important in helping white Americans place events such as the death of George Floyd in context, and can play a key role in shaping public attitudes. Polls suggest that white attitudes are shifting. A Monmouth University poll released in early June found that 71 percent of white Americans see racial discrimination as “a big problem” — a major increase from five years ago. Many drivers are behind that shift, but part of that might be gradually increasing exposure and openness to black perspectives and history.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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