APS Member/Author: Jennifer Richeson
For two days in early June, as America was erupting in sustained protests over the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis, the most watched movie on Netflix was The Help. The 2011 film—which depicts Black servants working in affluent white households in 1960s Mississippi, and centers on a white female journalist—won acclaim in some quarters. But it has also been criticized as a sentimental and simplistic portrayal of racism—and redemption—amid the cruelties of Jim Crow.
To ask what was going on here—why people started watching The Help at a moment of deep racial trauma—is to risk tumbling down a rabbit hole. That the movie was newly available on Netflix does not explain everything. One reality that the Help phenomenon makes us recognize is the enduring power of mythology when it comes to American racism. The mythology takes many forms. Sometimes it involves a desperate grasping for affirmation. Sometimes it involves a gauzy nostalgia. Sometimes it involves a willful ignorance. All of these strains, and others, are woven into a larger and enduring narrative—the mythology of racial progress.
This is a uniquely American mythology. Since the nation’s founding, its prevailing cultural sensibility has been optimistic, future-oriented, sure of itself, and convinced of America’s inherent goodness. Despite our tragic racial history, Americans generally believe that the country has made and continues to make steady progress toward racial equality. Broad acceptance of this trajectory underlies the way our leaders talk. It also influences the way racism is treated in popular culture.
When we think about the nation’s racial history, we often envision a linear path, one that, admittedly, begins in a shameful period but moves unerringly in a single direction—toward equality. As if we’re riding a Whiggish escalator, the narrative of racial progress starts with slavery, ascends to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, speeds past segregation and Jim Crow to the victories of the civil-rights movement, and then drops us off in 2008 for Barack Obama’s election. Many people asserted at the time that America had become a “postracial” society, or was at least getting close—maybe one more short escalator ride away. This redemptive narrative not only smooths over the past but smooths over what is yet to come: It holds out the promise of an almost predestined, naturally occurring future that will be even more just and egalitarian.
Thinking this way won’t make the future better.
The mythology of racial progress distorts our perceptions of reality; perhaps more significantly, it absolves us of responsibility for changing that reality. Progress is seen as natural and inevitable—inescapable, like the laws of physics. Backsliding is unlikely. Vigilance is unnecessary.
It is obviously true that many of the conditions of life for Black Americans have gotten better over time. Material standards have in many ways improved. Some essential civil rights have advanced, though unevenly, episodically, and usually only following great and contentious effort. But many areas never saw much progress, or what progress was made has been halted or even reversed. The mythology of racial progress often rings hollow when it comes to, for instance, racial gaps in education. Or health outcomes. Or voting rights. Or criminal justice. Or personal wealth. History is not a ratchet that turns in one direction only. Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And maybe it will, in the end. But in our actual lifetimes we see backward steps and tragic detours.
The protests that began in late May have focused on fundamental questions of police violence and civil rights. This sort of awakening offers great opportunity—more on that in a moment—but it is rare in our history, and challenges the nation’s prevailing psychology. My own research as a social psychologist focuses in part on racial wealth disparities—particularly, what people do and don’t believe, and do and don’t acknowledge about those disparities. Unless people understand the systemic forces that create and sustain racial inequality, we will never successfully address it. But perceptions, it turns out, are slippery.
For the past several years, I, along with my Yale colleague Michael W. Kraus and our students, have been examining perceptions of racial economic inequality—its extent and persistence, decade by decade. In a 2019 study, using a dozen specific moments between 1963 and 2016, we compared perceptions of racial wealth inequality over time with actual data on racial wealth inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents in our study significantly overestimated the wealth of Black families relative to that of white families. In 1963, the median Black family had about 5 percent as much wealth as the median white family. Respondents said close to 50 percent. For 2016, the respondents estimated Black wealth to be 90 percent that of whites. The correct answer for that year was about 10 percent.
Read the whole story: The AtlanticMore of our Members in the Media >