How do movements upend myths that reinforce racial stratification? One tool is to construct new narratives, which are spoken or written accounts of a series of events that we tell each other. These narratives filter throughout society via media systems that have transformed and expanded over time. 

These media systems help create and sustain dominant narratives that become our commonly understood norms and beliefs, which are then reinforced over time, typically by those who hold some power, but which are also often accepted and legitimized by those without power. This latter process is sometimes referred to as “hegemony” or what political sociologist John Gaventa has called the “internalization of powerlessness.” These narratives not only evoke emotions that affect our behavior—they also help directly shape our public policy priorities. 

For example, research has found that people with darker skin are perceived as more immoral, regardless of that person’s actual race, and that the media often includes darker colored photographs in negative news articles.

Our culture has been conditioned around racial emotions rooted in anti-Blackness resulting in narratives that situate Black people, and low-income Black people particularly, as ill-functioning and undeserving. 

Against the backdrop of our anti-Black culture is our commitment to remain ignorant about our country’s past and the state of current racial and economic disparities. A 2020 study found that White Americans underestimated the average wealth gap between Black people and White people by 60 percentage points.This notion, that we have made substantial progress on racial inequality, is anchored to the myth that is “the American Dream.”

In its current version, the American Dream paints a picture of a meritocratic democracy where any individual can climb the social and economic ladder through hard work, determination, and following the rules. However, the story of the American Dream doesn’t accurately reflect the social systems and racial hierarchy in play that produce a disproportionate rate of Black death at the hands of the police or the lack of wealth within Black communities. 

At least 1,176 people were murdered by the police in 2022, according to the Guardian, making it the deadliest year for police violence since 2013, with Black people making up 24 percent of those killed, despite representing only 13 percent of the population. 

Throughout the pandemic, as billionaires’ pockets expanded, Black households faced more financial emergencies than usual with already depleted wealth and resources, resulting in an even larger racial wealth gap than existed before the pandemic. 

Bringing a critical and racialized lens to the stories that we tell each other not only helps depict a truer story of the United States but it allows us to start crafting a society that can root out the anti-Blackness that permeates throughout it. 

Read the full article about reparations by Trevor Smith at Nonprofit Quarterly .