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The Legacy of Slavery: Not okay to be burdened by—but okay to benefit from? How the framing of history shapes fairness judgments and affirmative action support
Despite considerable evidence, people continue to neglect the fact that historic and structural racism affect the present day, creating persisting racial inequity. For instance, White Americans point to anti-discrimination law and other modern policies to suggest that anti-Black discrimination is no longer a concern (Norton & Sommers, 2011). There is also a general tendency for both Black and White Americans to overestimate racial economic progress (Kraus, Onyeador, Daumeyer, Rucker, & Richeson, 2019; Kraus, Rucker, and Richeson, 2017). In reality however, economic and social disparities accumulate within families across generations (Pfeffer & Killewald, 2018), creating enduring inequity over time. This raises the question of whether calling attention to the way that historical factors constrain socioeconomic opportunity over time can also shift perceptions of existing racial inequity and perceived fairness. A small body of work has begun examining whether, beyond motivational factors alone, an information gap about historical racism partially explains different perceptions of structural inequity between Blacks and White individuals (known as the Marley hypothesis; Nelson, Adams, & Salter, 2012). For instance, work on the Marley Hypothesis has demonstrated that increasing White individuals’ awareness of policies that specifically disadvantaged Black people over time can increase White individuals’ perceptions of present-day racial inequity (Bonam, Nair Das, Coleman, & Salter, 2019). However, just as Black Americans have been burdened by systemic disadvantage, White Americans have likewise benefited from systemic advantage over time. For instance, while the legacy of slavery continues to relegate Black people to fewer life opportunities, including lower wages and lower quality education, this legacy simultaneously enhances opportunities for White people, including higher wages and better education (e.g., Bertocchi & Dimico; O’Connell, 2012). Here, we consider whether presenting people with information that calls attention to race-based historical privilege versus race-based historical disadvantage is more effective at shifting perceptions of present day inequity and support for policies that redress such inequity. Specifically, we investigate how presenting information about race-based historical advantage versus disadvantage affects perceptions of fairness and support for affirmative action policies across two studies. In Study 1 (N=596) and Study 2 (N=254; pre-registered replication), we used a 2 condition (advantage vs. disadvantage framing) between subjects design. Participants were randomly assigned to read about a college applicant whose education and career goals are either significantly facilitated due to accumulated family advantage (Study 1, n=296; Study 2, n=127) or extinguished due to accumulated family disadvantage (Study 1, n=300; Study 2, n=127) dating back to the position of his forefather in the 1800s (e.g., descendant of either a slave owner or a slave). To test whether effects persisted above and beyond motivational factors (e.g., ideology), we also manipulated the country context, such that half the participants read about the legacy of slavery in the U.S., and the other half read about the legacy of the caste system in India (which very few of our U.S. based participants were familiar with). In both Studies 1 and 2, we find consistent evidence that participants view benefitting from historical advantage as more fair than being burdened by historical disadvantage, despite both outcomes being equally arbitrary. Moreover, this held even when the source of family advantage is rooted in slavery. In Study 1, participants viewed the college admissions outcome as significantly less fair for the disadvantaged student relative to the advantaged student in both the United States (b=-2.38, t(583)=-12.76 p<.001) and Indian context (b=-2.98, t(583)=-15.94, p<.001). In addition, participants indicated that the outcome was significantly less just when family background put the applicant at a disadvantage (M=2.66, SD=2.14) versus an advantage (M=3.80, SD=1.96; b=1.10, t(584)=-6.67, p<.001). In Study 2 (preregistered), we replicated and extended our findings from Study 1. The outcome was perceived as significantly more fair when the target was in the advantaged condition (M=4.17, SD=1.69) relative to the disadvantaged condition (M=1.89, SD=1.48, b=2.21, t(243)=11.79, p<.001). This held after controlling for positive and negative affect, motivations to reward or avoid penalizing the applicants, and attitudes toward inheritance. Further, we found that negative affect partially mediated the relationship between framing condition and fairness perceptions (b=.47, p<.001 95% CI [.285, .682]). In addition, we considered the effect of framing condition on support for affirmative action in college admissions to help low SES applicants. Although the direct effect of framing condition on support for affirmative action was not significant, there was a significant indirect effect of framing condition on affirmative action support via perceptions of fairness (b=-.67, p=.001, 95% CI [-1.10, -.337]) and negative affect (b=-.46, p<.001, 95% CI [-.732, -.256]). Specifically, the advantaged framing positively predicted fairness perceptions (b=2.28, p<.001) and negatively predicted negative affect (b=-1.01, p<.001). Fairness perceptions in turn negatively predicted support for affirmative action (b=-.29, p<.001) and negative affect positively predicted support for affirmative action (b=.45, p<.001). As such, those reading about someone who had benefitted from historic racism were less supportive of policies to correct such inequity, compared to those reading about someone who had been burdened by historic racism. Taken together, these findings indicate that benefitting from historical advantage is perceived as significantly more fair than being burdened by historical disadvantage, despite both outcomes being equally arbitrary and inherently interdependent (i.e. through slavery). These findings suggest that appealing to historical disadvantage, rather than historical based advantage, may be more effective at motivating support for policies aimed at redressing social inequity, although future research is needed to more precisely understand the underlying mechanisms.