What was your reaction to the violence in Charlottesville on August 12th? Did you connect the dots between recent events and the long history of racist violence in our country's history? Or were you like Paul Ryan, who voiced his repulsion and claimed the bigotry of the white supremacists was un-American?

OZinOH/Flickr
Source: OZinOH/Flickr

If you nodded your head along with those who claimed that #ThisIsNotUs, you were certainly not alone. But that doesn't mean you were right. Even if the white supremacists protesting by torchlight, chanting "Jews will not replace us" do not express views currently among those in the American mainstream, there is no escaping the fact that their bigotry is more anachronistic than un-American. Indeed, recognizing this is key to understanding why so many Americans are calling for the removal of confederate statues. They were erected as monuments to white supremacy across this land.

This is not the history taught in grade school. Success on the AP test for US History doesn't require knowledge of the Tulsa Riots or the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald. At least, it didn't when I was in high school. And I doubt that has changed. Insofar as the curriculum we impart to our children is a reflection of our collective memory, we misremember our past.

But why? One possibility is that explicit or implicit racial biases are influencing our memory formation. We forget certain facts about our collective past, and even replace them with others, in ways that reflect our preference for one race over others. We whitewash American history because, though we may not be aware of it, we are committed to white supremacy.

This hypothesis would surely be discomfiting to many. Most white Americans don't like to think of themselves as racist. But, even though there is some evidence that Americans are less racist now than they were in the recent past, it is also clear that racial bias is a fact of American life. Among other things, it helps to explain the outcome of the 2016 election. Nevertheless, there may be a less contentious explanation for why our collective memory of American history contains holes, half-truths and falsehoods.

The very fact that white Americans do not think of themselves as racist may be part of the explanation for why we misremember American history. To see how, begin by considering the role of one's self-image in autobiographical memory. When we can't quite remember what happened in the past, we tend to recall behaving in ways that mach our conceptions of what we are like. For example, if I think of myself as someone who doesn't pay attention to race, I will tend to recall acting in ways that reflect this. Thinking back on my school days, I may remember sitting next people of all colors in the lunch room. And yet this may not be true. My memory of doing so may be a false one. Without realizing it, I may be constructing a memory of what my lunchtime crowd was like that is biased by my sense of what I am like. This wouldn't be a deliberate act of self-deception on my part. I wouldn't be intentionally trying to paper over my past in order to look good. Rather, given that I can't quite recall who I sat next to at lunch, I will tend to come up with a recollection that fits how I think of myself now.

It's not out of the question that something like this occurs when we recollect American history. Thinking of ourselves as a nation committed to equality and liberty for all, we may tend to fill in gaps in our understanding of this country's past with events that fit this self-conception. Our collective memory may be shaped by our collective sense of what Americans are like. This would explain how well-meaning people can genuinely, and against all evidence, believe that Robert E. Lee was a gifted general who fought for secession even though he was against the institution of slavery. It would explain how a throng of torch-bearing white nationalists protesting the removal of a statue of Lee can be widely regarded as a mere fringe group out of touch with this country and its history.

The bad news is that once misinformation like this creeps into the public consciousness, it's difficult to correct our understanding of the historical record. Again, psychological research can help to explain why. It's simply easier to take claims at face value, and this often leads us to uncritically accept what we are told. When offered plausible, yet false claims, we are prone to storing them in memory alongside all the other information housed there. And we recall these false claims just as we do the true ones. The two can become indistinguishable.

The problem of misinformation becomes more intractable the greater the amount of information we are bombarded with. When true and false claims are offered up one next to the other, it takes even more effort to distinguish between them. We are even more prone to misremember the past when falsehoods are interspersed with truths. This is, unfortunately, precisely the situation we face when it comes to American history. It's not as if whitewashed versions of our history are entirely false. They contain many actual facts. It's just that these facts are presented alongside falsehoods and misrepresentations. It can take great effort to distinguish between them.

This brings us to some strategies for improving the accuracy of our memories, which may be useful when it comes to our collective memory of America's past. The main thing to do is critically evaluate information at the moment you come across it. If it doesn't pass the smell test, then you won't store it in memory to begin with. One thing that can get this process going is to carefully consider the sources of the claims you are presented with. If there is a clear agenda, or if the source appears unreliable you have even more cause for caution. Finally, it is important to be on the lookout for false information presented alongside truths. It's not enough to peruse a set of claims to see if some of them are true. Rather, we need to carefully consider all claims, in order to weed out those that are true from those that are false.

All of this takes a lot more time and energy than simply accepting what others say because it sounds plausible. And the truth may be hard to swallow. It can challenge our sense of who we are and what our country has really stood for in the past. But it's well worth the effort. The past is never just the past. Our reactions to current events are shaped by our sense of history. An accurate recollection of what's come before is an essential step in the process of expanding the great American experiment into the future. If Americans really are committed to equality and liberty for all, then we should face up to our sordid past and use an accurate understanding of this country's history to shape a positive, more inclusive future.

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