Abstract: Historical Harms By Race in the United States (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Historical Harms By Race in the United States

Friday, January 13, 2023
Hospitality 4 - Room 428, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Sherraden, PhD, George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor, founder and director, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Haotian Zheng, MSW, PhD Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Trina Shanks, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Shanondora Billiot, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, IL
Jin Huang, PhD, Professor, Saint Louis University
Background and Objective: The United States was established and built upon massive racial harms—most notably, appropriating lands from Native Peoples and enslaving millions of Africans. These harms were motivated by a grand reach for property and profits. In this fundamental sense, colonialism and racism have always been conjoined for the purpose of accumulating wealth. Yet there has been no previous attempt to assess the extent to which these harms are reflected in the current population. To our knowledge, this is the first empirical examination to document the extent of historical harms by racial/ethnic groups. The context of this research is a study of Child Development Accounts as an asset-building policy from promoting racial wealth equality.

Methods: We limit the sample to 1,082 mothers (71 percent of the wave 3 sample) who reported their race as American Indian, Black, or White, and had valid answers on four Wave 3 questions of family historical harms (stolen land, enslavement, housing restrictions, and financial exclusion) with a four-level Likert measure (“definitely not true,” “probably not true,” “probably true,” and “definitely true.”) We also create a sum score of historical harm index (from 0 to 12): a higher score indicates greater harms experienced. We conduct weighted and ANOVA tests to assess the associations between race/ethnicity and historical harm measures.

Results: We find statistical associations between race/ethnicity and family historical harms. Respondents of racial minorities reported a much higher probability of experiencing historical harm. About one-third of Native and Black mothers reported that their ancestors definitely or probably were forced to sell their land or had land stolen from them, while 10% of Whites had similar experiences (p <.001). About 28% of Native and 61% of Black mothers indicated that their ancestors definitely or probably were enslaved, while 11% of Whites reported their ancestors’ enslavement (p <.001). The White percentage for these two measures may seem high, but indenture was a common form of labor in the early colonial period and may be remembered. In addition, 18% of Native and 36% of Black respondents reported their families’ experiences of housing discrimination; 35% of Native and 45% of Black respondents had families’ experiences of being denied loans. The average index score is highest for Black respondents at 5.53, greater than twice the score for White respondents.

Conclusions and Implications: The results above are consistent with what we know historically about forced land appropriations, enslavement, property restrictions, and financial restrictions. There are many reasons why these respondent reports are imprecise measures—lost family histories being the most common. Regardless, the findings have an important present reality in reflecting how Americans today understand their family histories and historical harms. We know that historical experiences and harms are likely to have continuous and cumulative impacts on family asset holding and well-being. These findings lend support to policies—such as universal Child Development Accounts, reforms in real estate sales and finance, and race-based reparations—as strategies to begin to redress historical racial harms in the present.