As psychological scientists, we denounce racism and sexism in all its forms and take proactive steps, informed by science, to prevent the occurrence of intolerant acts (American Psychological Association, 2017). We disavow the dedication speech that publicly discounted the worth of, and celebrated violence against, a Black woman. We condemn the “Silent Sam” monument which, for many, symbolizes violence, dehumanization, and intolerance. Such symbols are inconsistent with our department’s commitment to foster a welcoming, equitable, and inclusive environment that facilitates growth for all. These symbols also are an impediment to actualizing the university’s mission to foster the prosperity, success, and leadership of a diverse community and enhance the quality of life for all people in North Carolina.
We say this for four reasons. First, monuments such as “Silent Sam” signal that Black students, staff, and faculty are not welcome, fully valued, or appreciated at UNC and that their histories, experiences, perspectives and voices are not worthy of respect and consideration. Second, preserving symbols of racism and sexism serves to create a hostile learning environment for Black students that has negative implications for their educational experiences. Third, the monument’s continued presence threatens the physical and psychological integrity of our community. Fourth, the monument is offensive and undermines our shared community values of equality, respect, and acceptance of all people.
Decades of research in psychology and neuroscience support, confirm, and replicate the detrimental effects of race-and gender-related stressors on self-esteem and well-being. Research indicates that cultural racism, a specific form of racism characterized by ideas of minority group inferiority and majority superiority that is embedded in images and symbols, negatively influences the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of minorities by two routes. First, cultural racism can lead to internalized racism – that is, the acceptance and internalization of the dominant society’s beliefs about biological and/or cultural inferiority by persons in marginalized groups. Internalized racism has been linked with psychological distress and several negative health outcomes. Second, cultural racism can activate stereotype threat or negative stereotypes within minority individuals that create negative expectations, anxieties, and reactions that adversely affect academic performance and overall social and psychological functioning. Stereotype threat is associated with increased anxiety, reduced self-regulation, and impaired decision-making processes. The continued presence of “Silent Sam” has the potential to compromise the attainment rates, cognitive functioning, and mental health of Black people on our campus and within the larger community.
Psychological research also shows that symbols such as “Silent Sam” can have a strong mental influence on majority group members. Recent data suggest that college campuses with a confederate monument have higher average levels of implicit bias. Published research by social and political psychology researchers links symbols of racism with bias and anti-black attitudes. For example, when exposed to subtle images of the confederate flag, White students, irrespective of their own levels of prejudice, were less likely to endorse a Black presidential candidate than a White one, and evaluated a fictional Black man in a vignette more harshly. Cultural racism and its associated symbols have been implicated in triggering unconscious bias that can lead to unequal access to health, educational, and economic opportunities and resources, and can lead Whites to discriminate against individuals without their awareness or intent.
Based on our commitment to foster an equitable and inclusive environment and the scientific evidence demonstrating the deleterious effects of racist symbols to Black people, the UNC community and beyond, the faculty of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience recommends that the statue and its base be permanently removed from public display and relocated off campus. This is a moment for us to look forward to developing a new context in our Department, on our campus and in our labs, classrooms, and communities, one that fosters light and liberty – founding principles of the University – and aims to alleviate mental and physical health problems, including those caused by racism and sexism. We encourage efforts to promote behaviors and create symbols that affirm all people and uplift communities, not symbols that are affirming to some at the expense of others.