Black And White Americans View Historical Events Very Differently

By | May 4, 2016

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White and black Americans perceive history differently, according to a new survey of the most significant historic events in Americans’ lifetimes. 

While both groups listed the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and President Barack Obama’s election as the two events that had the greatest impact on the country, the civil rights movement was among the top three most important events for black Americans and didn’t even crack the top 10 for white Americans.

The online survey, which asked 2,025 adults which 10 historical events “had the greatest impact on the country,” was conducted by Pew Research Center and The History Channel in July.

The racial divide in the study tracks with previous Pew research on how groups in America view the country. According to a Pew study from June, 88 percent of black Americans think the nation has more work to do before before black and white Americans have equal rights, compared to just 53 percent of white Americans who thought the country needs to continue making changes. 

In fact, not only do many white Americans believe the U.S. is a post-racial society, but according to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2011, there’s an emerging belief among some whites that anti-white bias is more prevalent than anti-black bias. (For real-world examples of this, you needn’t look any further than President-elect Donald Trump’s rallies in the lead-up to the election.)

And while this might not be particularly surprising to anyone who followed the 2016 election, it’s important that we measure and talk about racial bias. As Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economics professor who sent out identical resumes with stereotypically black- and white-sounding names to measure which race got better response rates (Spoiler: white-sounding names did), wrote in The Upshot last year, “The key to ‘fast thinking’ discrimination is that we all share it. Good intentions do not guarantee immunity.”

White Americans failing to list the civil rights movement as one of the most significant events of their lifetimes is a tangible example of implicit bias that we all need to work harder to recognize and name.

See how Americans of different races ranked the most historically significant events during their lifetimes, below:

Americans were also divided by generation 

Since survey respondents were limited to choosing influential events that occurred during their lifetimes, the strongest factor among respondents was age. Respondents also tended to select events that occurred during their formative years. 

World War II was the second most influential historical event for the Silent Generation, a war later generations didn’t live through. Baby Boomers chose John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War as the moments that defined them, while Millennials and Gen-Xers said that Obama’s election was the second-most influential event.

One constant: All generations agreed that the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 was the most influential historical event they’d lived through, with three-quarters of Americans listing it as one of the 10 events that had the greatest impact on Americans during their lifetime.

See how Americans of different ages ranked the most historically significant events during their lifetimes, below:

The new Pew survey is a good reminder that people’s opinions are shaped by their backgrounds and their place in history. In this case, consensus about the importance of Sept. 11, and division about the importance of other historical events, reminds us that Americans of different races and ages have biases they might not recognize. 

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