Episode 178: The Palliative Pop-History of American “Racial Progress” Narratives

Citations Needed | March 22, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
50 min readMar 22, 2023
Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally in 2014. (SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Our progress has been part of the living history of America,” President Jimmy Carter declared in a 1979 speech. “America is a nation of progress, of moving forward,” Chuck Grassley stated in 2022 on the Senate floor. “The story of America is a story of progress and resilience, of always moving forward, of never, ever giving up. It’s a story unique among all nations,” President Joe Biden announced in his 2023 State of the Union.

Adam: For decades, even centuries, policymakers, and media on their behalf, have employed some variation on the same rhetorical theme: the United States is a nation of progress, especially so-called “racial progress”. Though our Great Experiment has been imperfect, we’re told, it’s constantly improving, steadily and automatically forging ahead toward its ideal state. Yes, we’ve been home to the violent oppression of untold sums of people, but look how far we’ve come.

Nima: There have objectively been political gains for all groups historically and currently denied basic rights in the US. Yes, this is obvious. But the trajectory is far from linear, raising the question: How far have we really come? Are people, especially Black, Latino, and Native people, less likely to suffer through poverty, now, than any time before? Are police and prisons any less violent than they have been? To what extent have US law- and policymaking really evolved?

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll dissect the liberal assertion that social, particularly racial, progress in the US is inevitable, that there’s this comforting arc of history bending towards justice. We’ll examine how this idea came to be, who gets to define the metrics of progress, and why it’s dangerous to advance the tidy Vaseline-lens narrative that societal improvement is part of some preordained future.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Julian M. Rucker, Ph.D., a Social Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[Begin Clip]

Julian M. Rucker: You know, in general, people are motivated to see themselves, and by extension, the groups to which they belong in a really favorable light, and more specifically, white people in this context experience something that’s called a meritocratic threat, or this concern that what they have in life they haven’t earned by their own hard work, and this narrative upward inevitable racial progress really helps alleviate some of those concerns. ‘So things were bad in the past, but they’re better today and will get better in the future so I don’t have to be concerned about benefiting from my group’s hoarding of resources and power, right, because things will equal out in the long run.’

[End Clip]

Adam: This is, as we say, in the show, very often a spiritual successor to Episode 58: The Neoliberal Optimism Industry, which is where we documented the kind of Steven Pinker, Bill Gates, rah-rah, everything’s great now versus all this stupefied starving peasants who died 150 years ago, where we kind of ripped that narrative to shreds and showed how that’s misleading. This is specifically focusing on, I guess, a close cousin, but a different current of this type of liberal thinking, which is primarily about racial, gender, LGBTQ “progress,” quote-unquote, specifically the focus on progress of Black, Latino and Native American, and specifically the sort of tautology of progress as something kind of vaguely preordained by some arc of history as a comforting, soothing, palliative that we sort of tell ourselves without any sense of kind of what that liberal progress timetable really is, and I know that specifically, Nima, we’ve kind of touched on this topic in some other shows, especially, for example, the episode we did recently on education as the great equalizer. There’s this idea that there’s all these submissions we have to do to achieve the meta mission of justice, that we can’t just redistribute resources, we have to kind of run through this Rube Goldberg machine of kind of social tweaking to get to some sense of equity.

Nima: And yet we’re always going through it. I mean, it’s not just like a hamster wheel, we’re actually in like a hamster ball, right? There is some forward progress. It’s not just going through the motions but there is this idea that, yeah, as we said in our intro, that the notion of progress is fundamental, that it’s, things are going to get better, things will improve. This is inevitable. This is the natural state of things. There may be growing pains on the way, there may be backlash that we have to get through, but all in all, we are moving forward as a people, as a society, making things better, fairer, healthier, safer, more just on the way, this is our natural state of American progress, and nothing will stop that even though things may look bleak or things may be hard in the interim, just know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we will get there.

This notion of societal progress, as we’re meant to understand it, has origins in the Enlightenment of 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Enlightenment philosophy saw social improvement, as we’ve been saying, as inevitable.

Scholars Louise Seamster and Victor Ray posit that the history of Enlightenment ideas of progress is, quote, “simultaneously a history of race,” end quote. Dovetailing with the expansion of imperialism and scientific disciplines, Europeans created racial taxonomies, assigning varying levels of quote-unquote “civilization” and “savagery” to different newly created race class systems — white Europeans, of course, being the most advanced. The characterization of Indigenous and otherwise colonized people as “savages” and “brutes” functioned in service of this very framework, creating a contrast between the supposed evolution of European societies versus the stagnancy of the people they colonized so nobly. Thus the problem lay with the perceived backwardness of the colonized, rather than with the very real and brutal crimes of the colonizers.

Adam: Just as the idea of progress was used to justify settler-colonialism in Europe, so too would it be used in the US. In his 1839 essay “The Great Nation of Futurity,” published in his periodical The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, editor John Louis O’Sullivan introduced “nation of progress” rhetoric, writing, quote:

We are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals…

He would continue to say, quote:

For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?

Aptly enough, Sullivan is credited with coining the term “Manifest Destiny”; the phrase first appeared in Sullivan’s 1845 essay about the US’s annexation of Texas. We’d be remiss not to mention the far more noble and egalitarian expressions of this idea, namely the following quote:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

Nima: Now that last bit was an excerpt from an 1853 sermon by abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, adapted most prominently some 100 years later by Martin Luther King, Jr., into its most concise and commonly cited form. In one example, in response to the question ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?’ King said at the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, this:

[Begin Clip]

Martin Luther King, Jr.: How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

[End Clip]

Nima: Now, we do want to mention that we’re not underselling the power of this quote, especially not the most famous version that we just heard by Dr. King, and we definitely recognize that it’s born of a spirit of revolutionary, and in maybe some cases reformist, but certainly revolutionary optimism and imagination, right? It’d be ludicrous to suggest that King believed things would just suddenly get better without political struggle, quite the contrary, he obviously did not think that and did not pursue his life and works with that in mind, of course, indeed, his 1964 letter from a Birmingham Jail included this passage by King, quote, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” end quote.

Adam: Yeah, and but like with a lot of King quotes, of course, it’s been totally McDonald-ized and watered down into this, which, you know, it’s in the spirit of Providence, right? He’s a preacher, and so it has a sort of providential element to it that can inspire people that can sort of motivate activists and motivate people to go through struggle, this belief that your victory is inevitable has a romantic kind of propaganda, even, I think, a very important secular value, it’s not just a religious thing, and that’s why the kind of Arc of Justice has become this bromide because it has been stripped of the more practical or well it’s not going to just happen by itself, right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s a sort of romantic rhetorical phrase, it’s not necessarily meant to say, ‘Well just sit back, relax, and everything sort of just gets better.’

Nima: And yet the way that we cure that and other kinds of progress, mythology and progress narratives really do a lot to curtail the very kind of revolutionary spirit that King spoke with, and that is what we’re excited to dig into a bit more on this show.

By the early decades of the 20th century, the idea of the inevitability of progress was widespread enough to elicit formal criticism. In his 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History, British historian Herbert Butterfield explained that a whiggish interpretation judges history in relation to the present, which risks muddying our understanding of the causes of historical change.

Herbert Butterfield

Though he didn’t name them specifically, Butterfield based his criticisms on a number of British, quote, “Whig historians” of the 19th century whom he argued took this very approach. Butterfield explained their rationale and his used of the term “Whig” in his book’s preface, in which he denounced, quote:

the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.

Adam: Yeah, an important qualifier here is that we also don’t want to suggest we’re arguing the opposite: that we live in a time of unique doom and gloom end times of anti-progress because I think people can sort of go the other way where they view that end times, whether it be secular or religious is inevitable, which was fairly standard, it’s worth noting, in quote-unquote “Western society” or “Western culture” prior to the enlightenment. Indeed for much of pre enlightenment Europe and even to some extent North America the idea that we were uniquely ignorant and that people had gotten stupider over time, that we were facing the immediate judgment of God on a global catastrophic scale was fairly widespread. In his 2011 book The Clockwork Universe, American writer and former Science correspondent for The Boston Globe, Edward Dolnick, he wrote this about the foundation of scientific progressive-ism, he wrote, quote:

In the 1650s and ’60s the long-simmering fear of God’s wrath grew acute. Every Christian knew his Bible, and everyone knew that the Bible talked of a day of judgment. The question was not whether the world would end but how soon the end would come. The answer, it seemed, was very soon.

Almost no one believed in the idea of progress. (The very scientists whose discoveries would create the modern world did not believe in it.) On the contrary, the nearly universal belief was that the world had been falling apart since Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Now, it seemed, the fall had accelerated. From high and low, in learned sermons and shrieking pamphlets, men pointed out the signs that the apocalypse was near.

At some moment, at any moment, in one historian’s summary, ‘The trumpet would sound, motion would cease, the moon turn to blood, the stars fall like withered leaves, and the earth would burn to the accompaniment of horrible thunders and lightnings. In the midst of this chaos, the dead would rise, and saint and sinner alike would receive a sentence that permitted no appeal and no pardon. In the minds of our ancestors, this was not rhetoric but fact. God had ordained it, and it would be so.’

It’s strange to see it this way now, but even the most famous pre-Enlightenment scientist in the Anglo world, Issac Newton, he actually didn’t think anything he had discovered was new, you thought he was simply rediscovering a small fraction of what had widely been known to ancient cultures.

Nima: To this point, Dolnick would write this, quote:

We take for granted, for instance, that we know more than our ancestors did, at least about technical matters. We may not have more insight into human nature than Homer, but unlike him we know that the moon is made of rock and pocked with craters. Newton and many of his peers, on the other hand, believed fervently that Pythagoras, Moses, Solomon, and other ancient sages had anticipated modern theories in every scientific and mathematical detail. Solomon and the others knew not only that the Earth orbited the sun, rather than vice versa, but they knew that the planets travel around the sun in elliptical orbits.

This picture of history was completely false, but Newton and many others had boundless faith in what they called ‘the wisdom of the ancients.’ (The belief fit neatly with the doctrine that the world was in decline.) Newton went so far as to insist that ancient thinkers knew all about gravity, too, including the specifics of the law of universal gravitation, the very law that all the world considered Newton’s greatest discovery.

God had revealed those truths long ago, but they had been lost. The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews had rediscovered them. So had the Greeks, and, now, so had Newton. The great thinkers of past ages had expressed their discoveries in cryptic language, to hide them from the unworthy, but Newton had cracked the code.

End quote.

Adam: Right, so we have two extremes here. We have a kind of Doomer-ism, end times, nothing is new, we’re worthless pieces of shit, we live in damnation, our Providence is hellfire and brimstone.

Nima: Right, and everything could end in a millisecond.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: All of a sudden, everything would just be over.

Adam: That the world has basically been going to shit —

Nima: Since Aristotle, it’s been straight downhill.

Adam: So we wanted to qualify that by saying that there are two extremes here, right, there’s the progress is inevitable and then anti-progress is inevitable. Of course, as the black-hearted atheists we are, we make the very secular claim that neither is inevitable and there is no tautology to life, there is no sort of reason for existing, everything happens for a reason, the future is going to be what it’s going to be. It’s going to be what we make it. But the sort of rose tinted progress narrative does have its own problems and ones that we’re going to get into by pivoting to the modern usage of this.

Nima: Yeah, so we still see this all over the place, right? So, though it’s been critiqued for decades, whiggish philosophy hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s fair to state that there’s a redemptive pop-history conception of the United States that, as social psychologist Jennifer A. Richeson notes, “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,” end quote. There’s this idea of racial progress as inevitable and culminating in ever more victories, ever more public and kind of celebrity infused wins that showcase, Adam, how progress-prone, how inevitable, even if arduous on the way, but inevitable our progress, and especially in this nation, our racial progress is. Because if there’s progress, we don’t really have to think too much about history, and about the legacy of these horrendous brutal histories that we have that have created and built this nation, because if we’re progressing, then at least we can just look forward, we can look forward, not backward Adam.

Adam: Right. This kind of rose-tinted thinking was very apparent in the media’s reaction to the 2008 campaign and election of Barack Obama. NPR’s All Things Considered weighed in on the zeitgeist in January 2008 with a segment titled “A New, ‘Post-Racial’ Political Era in America.”

A February 2008 New Yorker profile of Obama and then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker noted that both had, quote:

developed a political style of conciliation, rather than confrontation, which complemented their natural gifts and, as it happens, nicely served their ambitions. The wish for a post-racial politics is a powerful force, and rewards those who seem to carry its promise.

Barack Obama and Cory Booker

The New York Times ran a piece the day after Obama won the election with the headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.” Excerpts include, quote:

‘I always thought there was a potential prejudice factor in the state,’ Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat of Pennsylvania who was an early Obama supporter, told reporters in Chicago. ‘I hope this means we washed that away.’

Another excerpt would go on to say, quote:

‘The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep,’ said Mr. Obama, his audience hushed and attentive, with some, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, wiping tears from their eyes. ‘We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.’


It bears mentioning that the, quote, “arc of the moral universe” quote was among the favorites of Obama. Early in his first presidential term, Obama had an Oval Office rug custom-made with five quotes stitched in, including the following: “The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Towards Justice.” He’d also weave the quote into numerous speeches.

Now, to be clear, Obama recognized that action was needed to effect change, he said, quote, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” unquote. But, as we’ll soon see, the second half of that quote isn’t nearly as influential as the first which is, as reporters even said somewhat backhandedly was more palliative, is sort of more about making white people feel good about themselves.

Nima: This sentiment has had serious material consequences in recent history. Again, as social psychologist Jennifer A. Richeson has noted, the mythology of racial progress has been used, especially within the past two decades, to justify reactionary policy.

In 2003, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the deciding vote and wrote the opinion of the court in the affirmative-action case Grutter v. Bollinger. While the ruling upheld affirmative action, O’Connor suggested that, because of the alleged rate of racial progress in the US, the need for affirmative action might soon be obsolete, writing in the Opinion of the Court, quote:

It has been 25 years since Justice [Lewis] Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education. Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today…

End quote.

Similarly, a 2012 NPR segment invoked O’Connor’s rationale regarding the 2003 case, asking guests to debate whether affirmative action was quote-unquote “still necessary.” And in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which weakened the Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts defended the decision by stating that the, quote, “country has changed,” end quote, since the Act was passed in 1965 to theoretically prohibit racial discrimination in voting.

Incidentally, when asked by her own biographer Evan Thomas in 2017 about her 2003 suggestion that the march of racial progress would make affirmative action unnecessary, Justice O’Connor, who had been retired for over a decade, admitted, quote, “That may have been a misjudgment.” Unquote.

Adam: So let’s establish sort of what progress has and has not been made because I think that’s kind of important to our point. Black poverty in many cases is worse than it’s been in decades.

A 2020 UW Milwaukee study found that the Black median household income in Milwaukee, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 30 percent since 1979. A 2015 Urban Institute report showed that the racial wealth gap was wider then than it was in the 1960s. In 2013, the average wealth of Black families was $95,000. For Latino families it was $112,000. The average wealth of white families was $500,000 greater than it was for African-American or Latino families. In 1963, average white family wealth exceeded that of Black and Latino families by only $117,000 in 2013 dollars.

Nima: By 2016, little had changed. Quote, “The historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between Black and white households over the past 70 years,” end quote, wrote economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins in their analysis of American incomes and wealth since World War II.

There are 2 million people currently in US prisons and jails. That’s a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years, due largely to changes in sentencing law and policy over that time. And even 40 years ago, incarceration rates were already skyrocketing. The increase of prison population in 1982 was then the highest in any year since the data became available in 1925. According to the Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans. Nationally, one in 81 Black adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison. And according to the Prison Policy Initiative, between 2000 and 2019, the Native jail population had increased by 85 percent.

Adam: So the long and short of it is that by some metrics, as we’ll talk about with our guest, there has been improvement, but relatively, there has been much, much, much better improvement for the average white families. Of course, there’s a lot of white poverty as well, needless to say, but in relative terms, the fruits of wealth of the past 50 years have wildly, disproportionately gone to white Americans, specifically, when you adjust for the classes, right, they’ve gone to the very specifically 1 percent of white Americans, and there’s been a little bit of trickle down into Black communities, but not really that much, which sort of gets to this whole narrative of progress whereas if you go from, let’s say, you have 100 units of progress to achieve at, let’s say, some level of equality, where we all kind of share relatively equal, the fruits of all of our labors.

Nima: Where the 100 equals the end of the moral universe.

Adam: Right. So we’re like on step nine, and we pat ourselves on the back and say, time to close up shop, no need for affirmative action or any kind of reparations or any kind of economic reallocation of resources, because look, it’s not step one, and it’s like, sure nine is better than one, nine is better than zero.

Nima: Non-segregated drinking fountains are good. Sure.

Adam: Right. Of course, obviously, right? It’s a necessary condition to get to anywhere because you can’t obviously have dujour discrimination, right? Many of those were necessary first steps towards something we thought was going to be more aggressive, more affirmative action, more about, well, frankly, the trillions of dollars of wealth that were stolen over several centuries. Instead, we got head patting, charter schools, and some Black faces in high places, right? That was the kind of consolation prize, and this progress narrative plays to the vanity of elites. And so elite stenographer Nicholas Kristof, for example, to reference back to Episode 58, the kind of Steven Pinker school of thought, he writes this article every single year. This is from January the 2017, his headline read, “Why 2017 May Be the Best Year Ever.” This is from January of 2018, “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.” This is from January of 2019, “Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History! Once again, the world’s population was living longer and living better than ever before.” In December of 2019, he wrote, quote, “This Has Been the Best Year Ever. For humanity over all, life just keeps getting better.” Now, after the pandemic, in 2020, he stopped doing it but he brought it back December 31, 2022. He wrote, quote, “Cheer Up! The World Is Better Off Than You Think,” where he wrote the same kind of facile Gates, Steven Pinker, world is getting better and better. This, of course, is Nicholas Kristof, who wrote not one, not two, not three, but four love letters to sweatshops from September of 2000, Nicholas Kristof wrote the headline, “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” and June 25, 2002, he wrote an article called, “Let Them Sweat,” where he also defended sweatshops. On June 6, 2006 he wrote, quote, “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop,” so you might stand up for the maligned sweatshop. And then January 14, 2009, Kristof wrote, quote, “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream,” where he again argues that sweatshops are great because they’re better than the alternative. Of course, there can’t possibly be any other options. Those are your only options. The only options are sweatshops or prostitution in his mind.

Nima: Yeah. But that’s why humanity is just living better, living longer.

Adam: Well, right. And so that the same guy that writes about the glorious progress that is sweatshops in the Global South and Bangladesh, Indonesia, in parts of Africa, also says this year is the greatest year ever, like you probably want to check your wallet because he’s obviously blowing smoke up your ass.

Nima: Yeah, and this messaging has had a measurable impact on public attitudes on racial progress in this country, particularly for those who don’t have to pay as much attention to the realities. A 2013 Pew Research poll found that white respondents had a much sunnier view of so-called “racial progress” than did Black respondents. So in this poll, nearly half of white people polled said that a lot of progress had been made toward Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality over the past 50 years: 48 percent said there was a lot of progress, 38 percent said there was some. As opposed to Black respondents in the same poll where 32 percent said that a lot of progress had been made, against 39 percent who said some progress had been made. In the same poll, 44 percent of white respondents said that a lot more needs to be done to achieve racial equality, as opposed to the 79 percent of Black respondents who said a lot of work still needed to be done. And in a 2021 poll, Pew found that far more white than Black Americans 56 percent versus just 19 percent thought that, quote, “a lot of progress” had been made towards racial equality over the past half century, and far fewer white people than Black Americans, 18 percent to 58 percent, thought US institutions needed to be completely rebuilt because of inherent racism, a gigantic 40 point difference.

Adam: Yeah, and of course, there are people who have criticized this kind of racial progress narrative quite a bit, we’re certainly not the first to do it. What often goes unaddressed in these progress narratives is the way in which social gains in the US for Black people have benefited white people and US power structures and how those benefits informed the extent to which quote-unquote “progress” is allowed to even happen in the United States.

Derrick Bell, a lawyer and professor often called the founder of Critical Race Theory — gasp — challenged the liberal notion that history was a mostly linear trajectory of racial progress, theorizing instead that it was cyclical. Bell coined the term “interest convergence,” or the idea that, quote, “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.” In Bell’s view, interest convergence would be accompanied by “racial sacrifice,” in which white people withdraw their support of “progress” initiatives and often oppose them outright.

The concept is not meant to discount the work of civil rights activists; Bell himself was one. Instead it’s meant to elucidate the historically restricted, often conditional nature of rights in the United States, particularly for minority groups.

Nima: Bell’s 1980 analysis of the Brown v. The Board of Education decision, which found racial segregation unconstitutional, is probably the foremost example of what we’re talking about here. Bell argued that the decision wasn’t so much motivated by morality as by Cold-War imperatives. These included concern over global perceptions of the US during the Cold War, American interest in stemming the growth of socialism and communism among Black Americans by virtue of them being discriminated against and looking for other structures that may be more equitable to them, and a desire to industrialize the Southern United States, to which de jure segregation was a barrier.

Bell cited a 1954 Time Magazine article with the following reaction to the Brown v. Board decision, quote:

In many countries, where U.S. prestige and leadership have been damaged by the fact of U.S. segregation, it will come as a timely reassertion of the basic American principle that ‘all men are created equal.’

End quote.

Now, curiously, or not so curiously, Bell’s writings get little attention in presidential speeches, news reports, and films on American progress. No, instead, we are left with we’re going to get there, we are getting there, stay the course, a more perfect union is just around the bend.

Adam: ‘Don’t give up on this system. We’re working on it. We’re on our way.’ Yeah, and there’s no sense of like, well, what’s the timeframe on that? ‘We’ll get around to it eventually.’ It’s like the Saudi reform efforts, right? It’s on a 250 year timetable, and it’s no rush, whenever you get a second.

Nima: That gets reset with each new king.

Adam: Right. And it’s like, okay, well, I guess the millions of Black people who, you know, have been thrown into poverty and locked away in prisons, in the meantime, we’re working on this, right? And this is why the whole education as great equalizer myth is so pernicious, because again, like the racial progress narratives we see in Hollywood and elsewhere, it puts the onus of progress on those subject to discrimination and historic racial hierarchies, right? It becomes their responsibility to get themselves out of their condition, individually, discreetly, conveniently.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Julian M. Rucker, Ph.D., a Social Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Rucker will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Julian M. Rucker, Ph.D., a social psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Julian, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Julian M. Rucker: Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So I want to sort of begin by laying out the reality of so-called, quote-unquote “racial progress.” Based on your research and surveys and work in this field, along with that of your colleagues, my first question is, how did you find the perception of white Americans, how did you find that it generally aligned with reality? You note that their basic understanding of things like the racial wealth gap and other criteria for inequality were way off by quite a bit. Can we talk about your findings, what you expected, sort of what you didn’t expect, and what the perception is versus reality, just as kind of a starting place to have this conversation?

Julian M. Rucker

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah, sure. So, as a social psychologist, broadly, my interest and my group’s research interests are really around understanding perceptions of racial inequality, broadly defined, and so there were a lot of places we could start, but we started off with this question of how do people make sense of all of this present day racial inequality that we see around us, and we kind of started with economic outcomes, I wish there were some sort of particular aha moment that led us to start with perceptions of economic inequality, but I mean, it sort of makes sense, because when we look at racial inequality, a lot of my work has lifted perceptions of racial inequality in the criminal legal system, if you look at it in health, if you look at in educational outcomes, so much of it ties back to economic outcomes, that it sort of makes sense, and these disparities are huge, right? Especially when we think about things like wealth, where the median white household has roughly 20 times more wealth than that of the median Black household. It just sort of made sense to try to see what white Americans do with this information. But we started off with this particular line of work, because we didn’t want to take for granted that white folks’ perceptions of the extent of racial equality was accurate, and so we’ve kind of tested that assumption, and so across several different studies at this point, they follow a pretty similar and simple methodology. So we’ll ask something like for every $100 of wealth or income or hourly wages, employer provided health benefits that the average white family has, how much do you think the average Black family has, and we usually ask this at multiple time point like a year in the past, like in the early ’60s, a year closer to the present, 2016 is about when we started this line of work so a lot of our precedent estimates start around there, and with that information from our participants, we can compare their estimates of past inequality to present inequality to kind of see how much progress they think was made towards closing Black/white economic disparities, if they do think progress is made, and we can also compare their estimates of past and current inequality to actual levels of inequality as reported by Economic Policy Institute and various sources for federal benchmark data. So when we do that, we find a couple of interesting patterns. First, we find consistent with this narrative of positive upward progress towards racial equality, that white participants think things were worse in the past, things were more unequal in the past, but as we get closer to the present they become more equal, they tend not to think we fully achieved racial economic equality and income or wealth, but we’re much closer than when we were. But when we compare estimates to reality, what we see is, again, participants are somewhat accurate in their estimates of how unequal these Black/white gaps in income or wealth were in the past, but really consistently and profoundly overestimate levels of equality in the present, and so basically, folks are inaccurate in their estimates of current levels of racial economic inequality, because they’re assuming that there’s been this upward linear trajectory of progress towards racial economic parity that there just hasn’t been in reality.

Nima: Lay some stats on us.

Julian M. Rucker: Sure. So this will be a demonstration of why people get it so wrong. So wealth is a starting place where folks tend to be the most off because they don’t know the extent of the racial wealth gap. So when we look at wealth, where people are the most off, when we look at estimates of Black/white wealth gaps in the ’50s, this is what participants estimate. So for every $100 of wealth accumulated by the average white family, they estimate that roughly $50 is earned by the average Black family. In reality, it’s closer to $5. But then when we get to 2016, again, when comparing the average for every $100 of wealth accumulated by the average white household, they’re estimating that something like $80 to $90 is owned by the average Black household. But in reality, we’ve only gotten that to about $10 or $11, for every $100. And so they’re just so off, they’re starting off so incorrectly, that they can only be, by assuming this upward trajectory of racial progress, they’re just gonna get more and more off. They’re closer to accuracy for things like income. But again, it’s following that same trajectory of, they tend to overestimate a little bit how equal things were in the past, but are in the ballpark of accuracy, but then are assuming that there has been this upward trend of progress towards equality that just hasn’t really manifested reality, and so the closer they get to the present day, the more and more inaccurate and the more and more they overestimate the extent of current day racial inequality and sort of as a function of that they’re estimating that there’s been more progress made than there actually has been.

Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think which cuts to exactly the core of not only this episode, but also why we’re so excited to talk to you about this, you know, there’s this idea, broadly from pop culture, of course, film and TV, school textbooks embedded in curricula, about our society being right now finally, in the, you know, 2020s, we’re in the late stages of this ongoing morality play, where long ago in the past, there were the bad slavery days, then some stuff happened, some old timey stuff in black and white, then there were some peaceful marches and Martin Luther King said some nice stuff and then Congress passed some laws, and by, you know, 1980s, certainly by the ’90s, and of course, now, everything was basically getting more or less equal. From here, the more popular narratives I think, deviate more along party lines, right, white liberals concede that there’s still certainly progress to be made while the right says, we’ve kind of gone too far, we’ve overreached in this thing called equity, right, we’ve gone too far. But this is the general idea, we’re on a trajectory, a moral arc is leading us this way. Can we talk about this kind of arc of history formula? And, you know, it’s a bit of a tautology that assumes that this progress, as you were saying, is an inevitability of just time passing, right? It’s a law of nature. It’s just, we are going to progress as a species, as a society, as a country, and so it is inevitable that when you look from 1963 to 2023, well, I mean, we are just going to get so much closer to equality, because that is just what happens over time. From a researcher’s perspective, why are these the stories that so many of us have to keep telling ourselves?

Julian M. Rucker: We certainly see this progress narrative reflected in media, and popular culture, but it’s really, it’s just everywhere, and once you look for it, you can’t not find it. I mean, the most common reaction to our presentations of this work from, you know, colleagues in psychology is, in addition to being sort of shocked at the extent of the overestimations, right, how wrong people are, it’s from being shocked at the levels of inequality, right? So people, people in the social sciences are still way off from these things, and still subscribe to these narratives of progress. But yes, I mean, there are a lot of ways to approach it. I think from a social psychological perspective, what we see shaping why these narratives of racial progress have taken hold, is they tap into several overlapping and often intersecting motives that folks in my field studied. So when we think of white people, and especially affluent white people, so folks for whom the current social order is most beneficial, there are really a couple of things going on, you know, in general, people are motivated to see themselves, and by extension, the groups to which they belong in a really favorable light, and more specifically, white people in this context experience something that’s called a meritocratic threat, or this concern that what they have in life they haven’t earned by their own hard work, and this narrative upward and evitable, racial progress really helps alleviate some of those concerns. ‘So things were bad in the past, but they’re better today and will get better in the future so I don’t have to be concerned about benefiting from my group’s hoarding of resources and power, right, because things will equal out in the long run.’ Intersecting with that, sometimes running in parallel with that, people are motivated, especially those who benefit from the status quo, to see the world as fair and just and to resolve the dissonance that comes when they butt up with evidence that this may not be the case, and so this progress narrative, this formulation that things have been bad in the past, but they will eventually get better, and so when you run against evidence that things aren’t getting better, or evidence of disparities in some domain, it’s easier to contextualize them, to rationalize them, to minimize existing racial inequalities than it is to disrupt the progress narrative. That’s just one area. But overall, there’s been progress that’s been made or that’s because that group of Black folks is not working hard enough or something, something to explain away that inconsistency to maintain the narrative of racial progress, and I think, when we talk about motivated cognitions, it’s really useful to understand that they don’t need to be internally consistent, and they often aren’t. If you try to parse apart the logic of them, they rarely make any sense, and they constantly contradict each other. But their goal is to assuage the psychological threat, whatever it may be. So the threat to thinking that I’m part of a group that is unfairly advantaged or that the status quo from which I benefit isn’t fair, the motivated cognitions are designed to minimize those concerns, and narratives of racial progress are ones, especially in this really racially stratified society, that white folks can really lean on, as doing a lot of that work of assuaging those motives.

Adam: White people, again, I don’t do the, ‘I’m the one of the good ones,’ but as lot of people get very defensive and sort of view social critiques as personal indictments of themselves personally, and so that’s where you get a lot of the really defensive, kind of like, ‘Well, I worked hard, I grew up in poverty,’ and it’s like, yeah, that’s great, and that’s true, but we’re not talking about you personally, well, maybe we are, but not in this particular instance, but behind your back we are, and I feel like that kind of reaction stems from that, and I think one rejoinder you’ll hear people say is like, ‘Well, did you account for class,’ which is kind of cheating, because there’s far more poor Black people than there are poor white people, percentage wise, in terms of absolute numbers, there’s more poor white people, because there’s just three or four times more white people. If I’m not mistaking that even when you account for class stratification, the disparities of wealth are still quite tremendous.

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah.

Adam: Because of inheritance and such.

Julian M. Rucker: Going back to wealth, especially when we think about the factors that shaped Black folks, lack of ability, of opportunity to accrue wealth, it becomes so difficult, if not impossible to parse apart race from class. We’re still a generation or two away from widespread instances of Black people being shut out of the housing market, the primary vehicles of wealth in this country. So it is the case that there are white people who are not wealthy and there are Black people who are wealthy, but you’re sort of missing the point, that quickly becomes a very motivated argument because it’s being unnecessarily obtuse, right? When you look at an aggregate, the vast majority of wealth in this country is accumulated among white people, not evenly distributed, obviously, but white folks tend to have more wealth than Black folks, and despite idiosyncratic differences here or there, the class not race argument can fall apart pretty quickly when you’re not understanding how these things are inherently intertwined.

Adam: I want to ask a quick question about wealthy Black people because I do feel like part of the narrative we’re talking about, this arc of history narrative, and this has been a critique that Black leftists and Black Marxists have made for some time, that it is kind of Black faces in high places, and there’s a sort of Black bourgeoisie who gets the benefits of many of these kinds of meretricious progress narrative. But it is, in many ways, kind of cosmetic to the broader kind of Black wealth, as you indicate by these numbers where you go from $5 to $11 versus $100, that in the sort of vast majority of Black people haven’t actually seen the gains from this kind of bootstrap, go to school kind of narrative that we have, this sort of charter school narrative, right? Now, obviously, this sense of begrudged Black middle class or wealthy Black people, you know, take it where you can get it, obviously. But in terms of like, what do people always point to? Well, look at Oprah, look at Barack Obama, right? It’s kind of this thing, where in some ways, having high profile Black successful people almost in a weird way as a kind of a psyop to assuage whites, almost, you know what I mean? So can you kind of talk about how that dynamic and the way it’s kind of, you know, because I think it’s, it’s in popular media, it has good intentions, but the net effect is clearly one contributor to people’s wildly distorted views of how much quote-unquote “racial progress” there has been, right?

Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey (Elise Amendola / AP / REX / Shutterstock)

Julian M. Rucker: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think a theme I will return to when we look at these motivated accounts of racial inequality, there is a way in which you could see somebody like Oprah as evidence that Black people have arrived, and that there’s economic parity, but there are like — what? — less than 10 Black billionaires, my numbers might be off a little bit, but there are far fewer Black billionaires than white billionaires, just so non representative that it doesn’t make sense to use that as the exemplar of a broader Black progress, unless you’re motivated to sort of be consistent with this racial progress narrative. If you’re motivated to undersell, under-appreciate the extent of racial gaps in wealth and income, and understanding how exceptional Oprah had to be to be a Black billionaire illustrates the point of how unequal things are, right? You literally have to be Oprah to be a billionaire whereas there are so many nameless white billionaires out here.

Nima: Well, that’s what I love. It’s like, if you know all the names of the first Black dot, dot, dot, then I think that kind of explains that this is a systemic issue and not a personal issue.

Julian M. Rucker: Exactly. Yeah. In my mind, at least, there couldn’t be clearer evidence that if you’re reliant on Black people having to be exceptional to, not even using the billionaire exemplar, but just like, you know, to achieve a higher social status, reliance on a group of people being exceptional, that defies logic eventually, right? Because everybody can’t be exceptional, by definition. So you’re illustrating that if the path you’re selling towards economic parody is Black people being exceptional, then you’ve illustrated how unequal things are by showing that that’s the way that Black folks have to do it. Whereas, you know, white folks probably just, may have just inherited the house, or been part of a family that had some generational wealth. It is so revealing the exemplars that folks latch on to to help justify these narratives of racial progress, because again, they illustrate both the motives to think things are more equal than they are, in that we’re progressing towards equality, but also they illustrate the extent of inequality by just how out of left field they are, just how exceptional they tend to be.

Nima: Well, I mean, you know, I think we’ll start seeing that we’re closer to a more equal society when just endless numbers of nameless, mediocre Black men succeed in every possible walk of life. I think like then it’ll be like, ‘Oh, all right, maybe getting there a tiny bit.’ You know, I’d love to actually focus us again a bit on pop culture. How do you think films like The Help or Hidden Figures, Remember The Titans, these films about broadly white people effectively overcoming their own interpersonal racism contribute to this idea that just that, that kind of alpha and omega of racism is about interpersonal animus, that the story of racism is about overcoming differences, getting along with each other, certainly promoting a generalized tolerance can be a good thing, I think that’s good for human beings, we should do that more, but it seems like in the popular mind, and certainly promoted through TV and film, certainly, that this has come to replace the material issues of justice and true equity, actual outcomes that materially change people’s lives. So what do you make of this “why can’t we all just get along” pop discourse with respect to racism, and as it has certainly been informed by your research?

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah. So I think, again, leaning back on the psychological motives at play here, it’s not a coincidence that this interpersonal model of racism is so centered in our popular culture, because I mean, another line of my research looks at the implications of thinking about racism in terms of interpersonal biases or structural factors, and one we find that this interpersonal model of racism is just less threatening to white people, right? Bias is something in your heart, the goal is to not be biased, it would be charitable to try to work to make other people not biased, but you know, your goal is to not be biased, and if you’re defining that, that’s pretty easy to do. But it also is this interpersonal model versus a more structural model is less catalyzing in terms of increasing interest in support for redistributive policies, in terms of recognizing evidence of societal racial inequality and wanting to do something to address it, and so I think that we’re hit over the head with this model of interpersonal bias as the thing to address in, you know, movie after movie and story after story, because it is so unthreatening to the person and it’s kind of unthreatening to the system. It runs along with some really cool work by a friend and colleague, Phia Salter, who’s out of Davidson, who does work on cultural affordances in the ways that Black and white folks represent racism that sort of reflects the psychological motives at play. So, she did some really cool work looking at Black History Month displays in predominantly Black and white high schools and found that in predominantly white high schools they tended to represent Black history with these kind of vague representations of diversity or exemplars of prominent Black firsts, and whereas in Black high school, they were more likely to highlight these critical histories of racism, and when she went on to show these sorts of representations found in Black and white high schools to kind of a naive sample of white folks, she found that those participants tended to like the kind of neutral white display more, but the Black displays that highlighted these critical histories led to more interest in support for redistributive policies, support for efforts that would challenge the status quo, right? And so I think it’s not a coincidence that we see that narrative of racism so prominently, and so prevalently, because it just doesn’t really challenge the material inequalities and stratification within our society, and it just isn’t galvanizing for kind of broader social change, in the same way, at least.

Adam: Yeah, because one of the sort of things about the racial progress narrative, where it’s incumbent upon Black people to sort of do better, the idea of racial progress is somehow, there’s a very patronizing, head patting, obviously dovetails with the kind of civilizing mission narrative around colonization, that like, ‘Oh, we’re going to help them out, and one day there’ll be ready for freedom when we feel they’re ready,’ and it’s all very head patty, right? And you see this a lot in this kind of Black firsts, right? It’s sort of a very popular thing. We recently saw this, of course, most recently with the Super Bowl, the first time two Black quarterbacks have ever played.

Nima: And there was a Black billionaire during the halftime show.

Julian M. Rucker: Right.

Adam: Yeah, as if Jalen Hurd and Patrick Mahomes somehow played better than other Black people, you know what I mean? Can you sort of talk about how this narrative of progress when it is in popular discourse oftentimes sort of puts the burden of progress on Black people with the implication being as like, in the 1960s they just were shitty quarterbacks or not smart enough?

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah. I mean, I think it puts the burden of progress on Black people, again, to be exceptional, like we were talking about earlier, and again, if your model of progress is this group being exceptional, everybody can’t be exceptional so it’s sort of bound to fail. I think it also shifts the lens of what we see as evidence of progress in highlighting these really symbolic things that are good in their own right, you know, I’m happy for Jalen, and I’m happy for Patrick, and I’m happy for Rihanna, certainly. But, again, it’s sort of this, these examples are somehow uncritically used as evidence that things are going in the right direction, and things are working as they should, when they could just as easily be seen as evidence that it’s taken this long, right — how many Super Bowls have there been? — and it’s taken this long for there to be two Black quarterbacks. So yeah, it is kind of a motivated and strategic misidentifying of the primary problem by not implicating structures, not implicating systems and shifting the burden onto Black folks to be acceptable in a way that ultimately just serves the status quo, and whether it’s something really really high profile, like the Super Bowl, or really just in these day to day things like famous firsts, within my area of psychology at UNC, I would not be surprised if I was the first Black social psychologist in my department as a professor, I can’t think of any others offhand, and that’s something that almost certainly folks will be celebrating if they knew. But at the same time, it’s revealing of how stratified the profession has been, right?

Nima: We did it, folks.

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah. We did it, right?

Adam: Yeah, and then perversely, you get to feel good about yourself.

Julian M. Rucker: Right.

Adam: Oh, I was, yeah, there’s sort of a sense of mutual progress.

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah, I had to be so great that I beat the odds or just so lucky that I beat the odds.

Adam: Or there was a benevolent Kevin Costner character who helped you along the way.

Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990)

Julian M. Rucker: Exactly.

Nima: The benevolent Dean.

Julian M. Rucker: Exactly. So it’s just a very useful, very effective, kind of shifting of the problem at hand, the problem to be solved, and the burden to the people who ironically have the least power, well not ironically, have the least power to do something about it, right?

Adam: Let me ask you something, because I feel like this is one way of measuring the kind of broader narrative psychology and impact of this narrative would be to know, did you study African Americans perceptions of African American wealth with respect to the past and present? Because I imagine that’s not as bad, but maybe it’s still bad? Perception wise?

Julian M. Rucker: Yes, it totally is. So a take home from this work, when we break it down by folks’ self identified racial background, and their SES, affluent white folks tend to be the least accurate, they tend to have the largest over estimates of progress towards racial economic equality. But basically, everybody is wrong, and pretty dramatically so. So Black folks from relatively low and high SES backgrounds, low SES white folks, aren’t subscribing to this narrative of racial progress, and presuming to at least some extent, that there’s been this upward trajectory and progress. They’re not presuming that it’s been this dramatic thing that totally wiped out the racial wealth gap or gaps in income, in part because especially as a Black person in America, you have more hands on experience, and you’ve seen inequality the way that, with the level of segregation in this country, white folks may not have. But there’s still this really, really powerful presumption, among just about everybody we’ve sampled, that there has been this upward trend of progress, that there just really hasn’t been, and so yeah, I think it is a little bit unnecessarily limiting to totally just attribute this to a problem that white people have, because this narrative is way more powerful than that, and addresses different motives for different groups. So as a person who’s a member of a group that has been structurally disadvantaged, it doesn’t feel good to feel that you are being oppressed, right? So this idea that, you know, things are bad, but are getting better over time and will be better for me, eventually, it will be better for my children is a really useful idea psychologically, right? But the people who benefit from the status quo the most, that narrative can mean something different to them I think.

Nima: I’d love to talk about that just for another moment to almost play, I don’t know, normie liberal devil’s advocate here. Do you think that there is any utility in this long arc of history bending towards justice, in motivating people who maybe aren’t naive about the deeply embedded structural systemic inequities to keep working, right? I’m not saying as a way to kind of fog reality and think that we’ve made it when we haven’t, but people who actually understand that we’re nowhere close, but still this idea of inevitability or movement, albeit maybe slow, as long as you don’t think you’re at the end of the arc, you’re not at the pot of gold, but maybe still somewhere along that trajectory, do you see any kind of utility there?

Julian M. Rucker: I think the utility in thinking that things can get better, is really just like a product of radical hope that to galvanize social movements, there has to be some sense that things could get better than they are, right? Because otherwise, what’s the point? But I think the kind of, one of the most, I guess, nefarious aspects of this racial progress narrative is that inevitability piece, because it treats the future, as you know, as foretold, and you know, if we just wait it out we’ll get there, and it totally just paves over all of the organizing and hard work and struggle and sacrifice that the people made, people that came before us made to get the progress that we have now, whatever, you know, whatever progress we have now, getting to the point where we are now was not inevitable, and so if we lose the idea that this would be an inevitable trend, is the potentially damaging and pacifying part of that narrative, but the idea that things can get better over time is kind of the really useful part but politically, psychologically, it’s necessary to think that things can get better.

Adam: Yeah, it’s just it’s kind of on a geological timetable. It’s like no rush guy.

Julian M. Rucker: Exactly. Yeah.

Adam: ‘We’ll get there by 2736, we promise.’ It’s like, well, this is, of course, we talked about this at the top of the show, this is fundamentally the argument for reparations, where it’s like, well, there was wealth stolen, you can go back and calculate it, in slavery by another Name, even neo slavery, right? Sort of under Jim Crow, you can sort of go back and look at what corporations now own and didn’t pay people money, and you can, there’s a number, you know, people have come up with numbers, and it’s not an abstraction. It’s not ‘Well, what about these edge cases? What if his mom’s from Nigeria?’ And it’s like, no, that’s never, you ballpark it, just like we ballpark white inheritance, and it will sort of get the job done, it won’t be perfect, it’ll be messy, but it’ll lower that number from the year 2700 to, I don’t know, 2250. It’ll sort of get you partly there, and that’s why you can’t even really begin to have that conversation when people have such a warped perception of what that actual inequality is, because it’s not even, they’re not even fucking close, I mean, they’re off by a factor of eight or nine.

Julian M. Rucker: And I think the the reparations argument isn’t really useful point to illustrate the issue here, we’re thinking about this as inevitable, because often, when we’re talking about how long it would take Black folks to achieve parity with white folks economically without reparations, that something like several 100 years and something crazy like that, right? But that assumes that there’s no backsliding, that assumes an upward trajectory of progress, and again, you’re asking for, you’re asking for something exceptional. You’re asking for Black people to do more with less when we know that that’s, you know, when we’re taking for granted all these sort of like meritocratic myths about how white people built wealth, that, you know, they earned it through hard work and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps or not? Well, you know, so often they were, they just had access to housing or given land, were set up to be wealthy in a way that forcing Black folks to make a way without reparations for past harms, even if it were to be successful, again, you’re just doubling down on this narrative that things will get better over time, while justifying the status quo, justifying not having to really change anything about systems or structures. So that if we achieve equality, great, but if we don’t, you know, I’m sure there’ll be some other rationale, some other explanation, you know, they just didn’t want it bad enough, right? That is the flexibility and the utility of these sorts of motivated processes, right? Because they will work to justify the status quo in whatever makes the most sense kind of in the moment.

Nima: And if we just stop talking about it, it’ll happen inevitably.

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah.

Nima: So people don’t really have to do much. I mean, I’d love the point about this narrative just erasing organizing, erasing that for the arc to bend, it’s not just it bends, it’s that it is bent by people.

Julian M. Rucker: Right.

Nima: Right, like organizing to change things. So this has been such a wonderful conversation. Before we let you go, Julian, please do let us know, and our listeners know, what you’re working on these days, what we can look forward to. Are there new studies afoot?

Julian M. Rucker: Yeah. So we’re working on looking at how to shift people’s misperceptions of racial economic equality to make them more accurate, and the thing that I’ve really been leaning on is whether this structural framing of racism versus a more interpersonal frame leads people to have more accurate estimates of current levels of racial economic inequality. We have some evidence that this is the case but be on the lookout, because science is a long process, but it would be really promising if we could find a framing of pervasive discrimination that can lead white people to sort of correct their misperceptions in a way that would be useful. So yeah, be on the lookout for that.

Nima: Nice, excellent. Yes. Science is a long process, as you say, but it inevitably leads to publication, I’m sure.

Julian M. Rucker: Man, I wish it was inevitable.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. Well, this has been so great. We have been speaking with Julian M. Rucker, Ph.D., a Social Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Rucker previously served as the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity Fellow. Just want to say again, Julian, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Julian M. Rucker: Thanks so much. Thanks so much for having me, this has been great.


Adam: Yeah, I think these perceptions are so wildly varied, and there’s so much investment, this idea of progress, because you know, on the one hand, like we talked about, you don’t want to be too cynical either, because then you can’t take inventory of things that are good. You can’t say, ‘Well, nothing’s changed,’ because if nothing’s changed at all, then you’re like, well, what’s the point?

Nima: Right. It’s also not true that nothing has changed.

Adam: Obviously, right? But sort of really not much in a very short period of time, and there has been some regress in other parts as well, and we see this recently with LGBTQ rights where we sort of took for granted there’s this arc of progress and then oh, actually, no, reactionaries don’t take days off is the you know, we saw this with Dobbs ruling, right, overturning Roe v. Wade, where it’s like, oh, there is no kind of tautological progress, there’s no secular —

Nima: Right. It’s not a given that the ratchet can’t go back, right?

Adam: There’s no such thing as secular Providence, and to the extent to which there even is progress it’s not fast enough, because again, the you know, the sort of old adage of, you know, the difference between a leftist and a liberal is simply boils down to urgency, right? If you take liberals even at their word, even in good faith, which is a big if, but if you take them at their word that they want these things like equality, racial justice, but they have to sort of incrementally go at it, well, at a certain point, it’s like, well, what is the timetable here? You know, I mean, the numbers that our guests gave us were jaw dropping, what would it take to achieve any kind of equality at all? And I know equality for its own sake isn’t necessarily good, because in theory, you could just make white people poor, which doesn’t really solve the problem.

Nima: Right. Right. Then you get into the differences between, I mean, equity versus equality versus justice, but even even by all those metrics, even if we’re talking about progress —

Adam: It’s extremely slow.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Just because, again, you have 2.3 Black characters on every ABC show, it’s like, certainly, that’s better than the other thing, but it can’t be a substitute for real, material, equity and progress in a real sense, right, in terms of actual wealth, actual political power, actual not being in prison or jail or not living in a racial apartheid regime in terms of our criminal justice system, and it’s like, reconstruction was, you know, 150 years ago, you know, no rush, guys, whenever you get whenever you get around to it.

Nima: Right, I mean, what this also does, of course, as we’ve been discussing, is it kind of curtails the urgency to organize. I mean, you were talking about urgency, Adam, but it also has this idea that there’s a retelling of history, there’s an understanding of history, and we’re seeing this, obviously, in fights over our education system, over what books are allowed to be taught, what real history is allowed to be known, this idea that, ‘Oh, well, look, there’s just this progress narrative,’ right? ‘We started out, you know, started on this idea of equality, all men are created equal, and it wasn’t quite that, but almost, and we kind of wanted it to be, the white guys that wrote the thing, kind of were hemming and hawing and hand wringing, and eventually we got there or we’re still getting there, and even if it’s not perfect, it’s still more perfect than it was, and we already made it through the ’60s, and that was better than the ’50s, and now we’re in the 2020s, and I only see things going on the up and up from here, because that’s the way things go.’ And so it kind of removes this human agency, and not just at an individual level, but at a systemic and a kind of collective level, to organize to force things to get better, because they will not inevitably get better, and that forcing to get better, as we’ve seen through, whether it’s news media or political speechifying or pop culture, is so often told through the stories of individuals, which then again, kind of lets everyone else off the hook, that there are these great people time and again, who kind of come up and they inspire our better angels, and we change a little bit for the better, and we’re not going to go backwards, but even if progress isn’t full on where we need it to be, at least it’s getting there, and I think all of that really is meant to not only tell a false history of this country and of our society, but also to kind of de-urgent-ify organizing and collective action to change things materially for the better in the here and now or at least on a much shorter timescale than the entire moral arc of the universe.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, not to sound like, because again, you have the sort of doom and gloom-ism, which is obviously the struggle of all leftist movements. How do you push against that? Because you have no choice, right? Versus look how swell everything is, you know, we made all this progress, look at Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and it’s like, yeah, but like when you actually look at the average life of, you know, the sort of mean Black person, the progress has been extremely pathetic, and it looks like a kind of managed movement, right? It looks, it’s all very sort of not too radical, not too urgent, it’s all sort of managed in a very particular way as it’s talked about, and I think that that rose tinted view, that providential view is so immensely popular, especially among whites, but even as our guest noted, even among Black people, they have a distorted view of what that progress has been.

Nima: Because of the ubiquity of the mythology.

Adam: Right, because of the ubiquity of mythology in pop culture and our narratives, because, you know, I think we’re fundamentally optimistic mammals. I think we want to think things are going better than they are, and I think it’s not about being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic, it’s about trying to accurately calibrate reality and reflect reality, and the actual objective metrics one uses shows that the progress, such that it is, has been incredibly slow and slow at a great human cost, right? I think people don’t realize that if some measure of equity takes 200 years, that in that timeframe, a lot of people suffer, a lot of people languish in poverty, food insecurity, job discrimination, prison, et cetera. There’s a human cost to the slow process. There’s an opportunity cost.

Nima: But not if you’re Nicholas Kristof. He’s doing okay.

Adam: He’s golden.

Nima: He’s doing great.

Adam: He’s got Wynn McCormick funding his campaign for governor in Oregon that he failed miserably at. But all in all, he just goes back to New York Times and he’s doing good.

Nima: Yeah. Best year ever, man.

Adam: Any update on the sweatshop thing? He doesn’t do the sweatshop thing anymore, that fell out of favor sometime around 2012.

Nima: Well, we can’t all be Nicholas Kristof, is the moral of this episode, but that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you again for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.