“My friends, my only argument is that we need to live in reality, not mythology.”
Sounds pretty sensible, right?
And convincing, too, as spoken by Jennifer Richeson as she approached the conclusion of her SAGE-CASBS Award Lecture at CASBS on April 21, 2022, in front of a crowd assembled to hear her discuss what Richeson calls “The Mythology of Racial Progress.”
The SAGE-CASBS Award, instituted in 2013, recognizes outstanding achievement in the social and behavioral sciences that advance our understanding of pressing social issues. It underscores the role of the social and behavioral sciences in enriching and enhancing public policy and good governance. Past winners of the award include psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, sociologist and education rights activist Pedro Noguera, political scientist and former U.S. Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt; eminent sociologist of poverty, inequality, and race William Julius Wilson; and mindset science pioneer Carol Dweck.
This installment of the award lecture had been long-delayed due to the COVID pandemic; Richeson was announced as the sixth winner of the SAGE-CASBS Award in September 2020. The organizations co-presenting both the award and the award event – CASBS and SAGE Publishing – felt strongly that the lecture should be delivered before a live audience rather than on a screen via webinar.
The wait was worth it – and not only because of the rich thought leadership contained in Richeson’s talk. During the year-and-a-half gap, Richeson further added to an already-impressive collection of honors for which the SAGE-CASBS Award announcement recognized her. Earlier in 2022, Richeson was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. In fall 2021, she was appointed to the prestigious President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the sole body of external advisors charged with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the President and the White House.
In addition, the delay helped make Richeson a breeze to coordinate with in the weeks and days leading up to the event. As it happens, she is in residence as a 2021-22 CASBS fellow, a near-daily presence in the CASBS landscape since the fellowship year commenced in early September 2021.
The Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and head of the Social Perception and Communication Lab at Yale University, Jennifer Richeson, as described by CASBS director Margaret Levi in her introduction, is “one of the most cutting-edge social scientists on the planet today.” Most of her work examines ways in which gender, race, and socio-economic status influence how people think, perceive, and behave. And specifically, how people reason about and respond to different forms of inequality and the implications of such processes for detecting, acknowledging, and confronting injustice.
This includes work interrogating the role that perceptions and beliefs in – and even fidelity to – a racial progress narrative (or, the “mythology”) plays in maintaining a misapprehension about the true extent of inequality in the U.S. In fact, Richeson’s CASBS fellowship year project builds upon her (and collaborators’) research findings on this mythology, provides the intellectual underpinnings of the award lecture itself, and illuminates the contrasting “reality” Richeson steered the audience toward in her talk.[i]
So, what is the “mythology of racial progress,” as advanced by Richeson? It’s a prevailing story many of us tell ourselves in the U.S., whether explicitly or implicitly, that recognizes gross racial inequalities in the past yet embraces the notion of steady, natural progress toward greater racial equality in contemporary society. Any number of key historic inflection points – civil rights movements and resulting legislation in the 1960s, the election of Barack Obama, an African American, and so on – together suggest evidence of remarkable, accelerating progress toward racial equality.
Yet, as Richeson explained, this narrative shapes – rather, misshapes – how we perceive the actual state of affairs in our time. It distorts reality by committing our thoughts to a narrative that equates progress with the mere passage of time. It lures us – some of us more than others – into overestimating rates of progress, leading many to imagine things are better than they are even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
And Richeson came armed with big-time evidence, presenting slide after slide of scientific findings showing not only factual lack of progress (regarding, say, the relative rise in income rates among races or relative racial family wealth accumulation over time), but also replicated results of multiple social-psychological experiments showing people’s “astoundingly wrong” perceptions and assessments about how much income and wealth gaps have closed (they pretty much haven’t) over a period of five-or-so decades.
“It’s hard to be this wrong about anything,” said Richeson. “How could anything lead people to be this wrong about something that’s, you know, somewhat observable in our environment?”
Even when trained social psychologists like Richeson and her collaborators attempt to disrupt the narrative through experiments consisting of control groups and treatment groups (the latter receiving information treatments about the ongoing legacy and influence of historic, systemic racial bias), they consistently find that subjects tend to update how they think about past decades rather than how they think about the present. In other words, if things haven’t actually changed that much, if the inequality gap hasn’t been reduced much, that must mean the past wasn’t as bad. Such a conclusion is wildly incorrect and presents a big problem to overcome.
A variety of cognitive operations drives this, she explained; the progress narrative is fueled by motivated beliefs.
The more one believes, for example, that life outcomes are dependent mostly on innate talent, hard work, and effort; or the more one subconsciously “activates” exemplars of Black wealth (e.g. LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey) when prompted to think about “average” Black people, the more that these and other counter-narratives shape our cognitions and subvert or ignore the evidence of reality. Even worse, they can seduce us into ignoring evidence of backlash or stasis.
Moreover, the slow crawl of positive changes over time create their own sustaining myths that do contain some kernels of truth – that as the country becomes more racially diverse it will become more egalitarian; that increased interracial marriage will increase the numbers of (more racially tolerant) bi- or-multi-racial children; that the younger generations will save us.
Richeson debunked them all, one by one, slide by slide.
Bottom line: the progress narrative is redemptive and, as a society, we’re just invested in it.
“It does something for us to believe that society is going to ultimately be racially equal – in fact, that it’s happening already on its own,” said Richeson. “It does something. It makes us feel better to think that we’re better today than we were twenty, forty, or one-hundred years ago.”
And to the extent that the march of progression is (or is seen as) practically automatic, predestined, and inexorable, there would appear to be few incentives for us, individually or systemically, to take action – in the policy arena or otherwise – to help advance the process.
That slow, gradual crawl encourages a very hands-off approach to racial justice, noted Richeson. Just add water and wait a decade. Or three or four.
Of course, many of those asked to wait are those who continue to suffer indignities and injustices that sometimes carry deadly outcomes. The racially-motivated murders in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, are but the latest example.
Cue an oft-cited James Baldwin quote, as Richeson did from the lectern and an accompanying slide to great effect:
You always told me it takes time.
It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time.
My uncle’s time, my brother’s and my sister’s time.
My niece’s and my nephew’s time.
How much time do you want, for your “progress”?[ii]
So, implored Richeson, and as suggested in this article’s opening, live in reality not mythology. And focus not only on the ability of individual people to change, but on action aimed at changing institutions and structures and systems too.
Now, there has been an incredible amount of progress toward racial equality in the United States, and Richeson acknowledged as much. How could she not? She noted that CASBS fellows in her cohort had been prodding her all year to infuse some hope into her developing work.
The compromise Richeson suggested: Reality + Possibility.
As an example, Richeson drew moral inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Yet, given her formidable marshalling of the evidence that shapes the reality she had outlined for the audience’s consideration over the course of an hour, she ultimately found the message insufficient.
Instead, Richeson opted for a revision as put forward by former President Barack Obama who, coincidentally, spoke nearby on the Stanford campus on the same day as the SAGE-CASBS Award Lecture: “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
“I invite you to be a part of bending the arc,” said Richeson.
[i] See also Richeson, Jennifer, “Americans are Determined to Believe in Black Progress. Whether it’s happening of not.” The Atlantic, September 2020.
[ii] “James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket,” (1989).