Threatened by Memory: White Americans’ Reactions to Representations of Slavery


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

This dissertation provides the most comprehensive test to date of key elements of Blumer’s group position theory. It demonstrates that collective threat is a valid emotion resulting from attachment to high-status group identities and with direct influence on contemporary racial attitudes. In the dissertation, I focus specifically on White Americans’ reactions to representations of slavery, with the goal of understanding if collective memories of slavery have implications for contemporary race relations by producing feelings of threat. The data were collected using a survey-based experiment which primed respondents about African slavery in the United States, exposed them to representations of that slavery, and then asked them to answer a series of questions relating to identity, emotions, and socio-political attitudes (chapter three). After introducing a model of expected outcomes, I present and validate a new quantitative measure of collective threat intended to capture feelings of instability White Americans have about their current status, when considering the harm their in-group caused to African Americans in the past (chapter four). This measure is used to demonstrate that higher levels of attachment to White racial identity and American national identity, as well as self- identifying as lower class, increase the odds of experiencing threat (chapter five). Representations of slavery, as well as interactions between representation and identity, have no greater effect on levels of collective threat than does a mere reminder of slavery (chapter six). Lastly, collective threat is found to be significantly associated with conservative racial attitudes, specifically, increased odds of experiencing racial resentment, traditional prejudice, social distance, and feelings of competition, as well as endorsement of person-centered stratification beliefs (chapter seven). These findings are relevant to current issues in the United States and have implications for future research.

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