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Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification$

John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195320916

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195320916.001.0001

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Acknowledging and Redressing Historical Injustices

Acknowledging and Redressing Historical Injustices

(p.463) CHAPTER 19 Acknowledging and Redressing Historical Injustices
Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification

Katherine B. Starzyk

Craig W. Blatz

Mike Ross

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents research and theory focusing on how individuals and governments respond to historical injustices. The chapter proposes that people and groups remember negative historical events more benignly, if they remember them at all, to maintain positive views of important groups and social systems. The focus is placed on studies demonstrating that people’s evaluations of reparations for past harms depend on situational variables, such as whether the harm happened in their own or another country. The chapter also connect people’s responses to reparations to the dual motivations to protect important groups and social systems, and examine the responses of members of a victimized minority and nonvictimized majority to a government apology for a historical injustice. Finally, the content of government offers of reparation is analyzed, to assess how these offers might enhance the social identities of both the victimized minority and nonvictimized majority, as well as affirm the current system of government and laws.

Keywords:   nonvictimized majority, redressing injustices, reparations, victimized minority

He who controls the present controls the past.

—Orwell, 1949, p. 32

Anecdotally, people are sometimes more concerned about righting wrongs in distant places than in their own backyard. One of us (MR) remembers that a store at the University of Waterloo once sold t-shirts lamenting the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Meanwhile, loggers were systematically destroying the Pacific rain forest in Canada, but there was no protest on campus. Students were seemingly unaware of or unconcerned about events in their own country. Similarly, during the 1960s, Canadian university students (MR among them) attended meetings organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the acronym, SNCC, was pronounced snick) and sang “We Shall Overcome” in support of the civil rights movement in the United States. At the same time, these caring students appeared unaware of or unconcerned about longstanding deprivations suffered by Aboriginals across Canada.

In this chapter, we present research that brings historical and personal memory together. We observe that, as the just-related anecdotes suggest, (p.464) members of religious, ethnic, and national groups often seem unaware of past harms committed by their own group. This knowledge gap is evident in histories presented in the media and educational settings, as well as in ordinary people’s recollections of their group’s history. The suppression of negative histories is sometimes inadvertent and sometimes deliberate. In either case, it can help group members to protect their social identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and justify their social systems (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Lerner, 1980).

Efforts to cover up negative histories are not entirely successful, however. Researchers regularly write revisionist histories that question people’s cherished beliefs about the past (e.g., Loewen, 1995). Also, previously victimized groups often maintain memories of their suffering and sometimes seek reparations. In various countries, minority groups are now demanding that governments formally apologize on behalf of the majority for acts of legislative discrimination that occurred decades or even centuries earlier. How do current members of the majority respond to demands that their government atone for actions committed long ago? We discuss how identity and justice motives influence majority members’ support for government apologies and other reparations for past harms.

In increasing numbers, governments are formally apologizing for historical injustices. In the concluding sections of the chapter, we examine the impact and content of government offers of reparations. We examine the responses of members of a victimized minority and nonvictimized majority to a government apology for a historical injustice. Finally, we analyze the content of government offers of reparations to assess how governments apologize. In particular, we examine whether governments are sensitive to the identity and system justification concerns of the majority and victimized minority.


Why are people seemingly unaware of wrongs that occurred in their own country? Biases in both historical accounts and individual memory help to explain a lack of knowledge. The history taught in schools and presented in the media is not an unbiased rendering of past events. A famous illustration of biases in the reporting of history occurred in Great Britain in the 19th century. At the time, British Whigs advocated a strong democratic parliament and a constitutional monarchy. Whig historians supported their political beliefs with bad history. They distorted, glorified, and omitted aspects of the past to defend their political preferences. Their biased portrayal of the past reflects a phenomenon that historians labelled “presentism” (Butterfield, 1959). Presentism occurs when writers or speakers alter the historical record to make it consistent with their current knowledge, ideology, and preferences.

(p.465) As a consequence of presentism, conceptions of the past are flexible and succeeding generations rewrite history to reflect their own beliefs and achieve their current goals (Barkan, 2000; Mead, 1924/1964). A blatant example of presentism appears in Natan Sharansky’s (1988) description of modifications to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The first target of revision was Beria, a chief of the secret police who was executed for being a British spy. Subscribers to the encyclopedia were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided with additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages. According to Sharansky, subscribers frequently received such missives.

Suppression and alteration of historical events is not limited to communist dictatorships. In eras in which women were considered inferior to men, distinguished female scientists disappeared from the historical record of Western countries (Bodanis, 2006). Today, young people commonly learn versions of history in which the actions of their own national, ethnic, and religious groups are justified and glorified, while episodes potentially damaging to their groups’ image are de-emphasized or omitted (Frijda, 1997; Paris, 2000). Also, religious and national groups are more likely to construct memorials and hold commemorative ceremonies for their achievements rather than their blunders or offences. Therefore, people may lack knowledge of wrongs committed by groups to which they belong (ingroups) because they never learned about the incidents or were taught to interpret them in ways more flattering to their ingroups.

Socio-political organizations (i.e., governments) may deliberately memorialize or acknowledge historical events that justify the present system. Individuals may exhibit similar system-justifying biases when reconstructing aspects of their groups’ history, without being aware that they are remembering in a biased way. People often remember only a few elements of an episode, and their recollections of past events are reconstructions shaped in part by their current knowledge, motives, and goals (Bartlett, 1932; Mead, 1929/1964; Neisser, 1967; Ross, Blatz, & Schryer, 2008). As well, previous events are often sufficiently numerous, contradictory, and ambiguous that people can select which episodes they need or prefer to recall. Like Whig historians, ordinary people use the past as a resource, reconstructing and selecting events so as to achieve their personal and social goals.

Although a variety of goals might guide how historians, social groups, and individuals depict and recall past ingroup injustices, two general motivations of interest to social psychologists are particularly relevant. Social identity theorists reason that people are motivated to view the groups to which they belong (ingroups) favorably because they derive their identity (p.466) and self-regard partly from their group memberships (Branscombe & Doosje, 2004; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Belonging to a group that has wronged others may threaten this positive image. Group members may respond to the threat in a variety of ways that limit the psychological damage, including deleting the episode from history texts. Psychologists studying justice motivation also suggest that people prefer to regard their ingroups favorably, but these researchers focus on dimensions related to fairness. According to Lerner’s (1980) just-world theory, people are motivated to perceive the world as a fair place where people are rewarded if they work hard, delay gratification, or bargain in good faith. People should be especially motivated to view the country in which they live as a place in which people get what they deserve, because their own outcomes are most dependent on local justice. Along the same lines, system justification theorists (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004) propose that people are motivated to view their own country’s existing social, economic, and political arrangements as fair and legitimate. Past instances in which this system has acted unfairly threaten the legitimacy of the system. People may act to reduce the threat in a variety ways, including denying that the system was unfair.

We have conducted several experiments to examine whether people’s memories are biased in ways that would support favorable views of their ingroups. Blatz and Ross (2005) asked Canadian university students to recall events from the histories of different groups (e.g., Canadians, Americans, Jews, Christians, Arabs, and Chinese) based on whatever knowledge they possessed. All participants belonged to at least two of the groups in the survey. After recalling each event, participants indicated whether the event was positive, negative, or neutral, and how much they knew about the event. As expected, participants recalled more positive than negative past events for ingroups, but more negative than positive events for outgroups. Also, participants reported that they knew more about positive ingroup than about positive outgroup events.

Although both individual motivation and selective historical reporting probably contribute to such memory biases, it is possible to isolate experimentally the role of individual motivation. Sahdra and Ross (2007) experimentally varied Canadian participants’ identification with Canada and then asked them to recall acts of violence and hatred committed by Canadians against members of other groups. According to social identity and justice theories, participants who identify highly with Canada should be strongly motivated to view Canadians as good people who rarely commit serious wrongs. As expected, participants who were experimentally induced to identify highly with Canada recalled fewer incidents of violence and hatred than did participants in the low-identity condition.


Much of what we remember about our country we have learned from others, rather than experienced directly. Memories are transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation. We have noted how writers of history sometimes alter or erase events to render the past more consistent with their preferences and beliefs. We now ask whether we can observe the emergence of similar biases as memories are transmitted from one person to another.

Psychologists have examined the transmission of memories from person to person using the method of serial reproduction (Allport & Postman, 1947; Bartlett, 1932; Lyons & Kashima, 2003). In a typical study, the first person in a chain reads a text and, after a brief delay, recalls this text as accurately as possible for a second participant. The second participant then reads the first participant’s account and, after a brief delay, recalls it for a third participant. This process is repeated until the chain has three participants or more. The major finding is that accounts get shorter as they move down the chain; peripheral and obscure details vanish, and only core details remain.

Most studies of serial reproduction involve material of little personal relevance to the average participant (e.g., obscure folk tales, Bartlett, 1932). In everyday life, however, a memory is transmitted because it interests either the teller or the listener. In a recent study, we examined how information about a historical injustice is transmitted from individual to individual in a three-person chain (Blatz & Ross, 2006). An audio recording described an episode that allegedly occurred either in the participants’ own country (Canada) or another country (Australia). The first participant in each chain listened to how the Canadian or Australian government forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their homes and communities and placed them in residential schools. The goal of the schools was to “civilize” the Aboriginal children, who were strictly disciplined for speaking their native language and robbed of their cultural identity. Many children were psychologically, physically, or sexually abused. The passage was based on episodes that actually happened in Canada (Krotz, 2007). The passage was transmitted down a three-person chain.

Story details will change and disappear as the description is passed from person to person. We expected that when the harm occurred in Canada, the alterations to the passage would be system justifying. We assessed memory errors that seemed to reduce the culpability of the current system and group. For example, some participants underestimated how many children were placed in the schools or recalled that the events happened longer ago than the original passage described. When the harm occurred in Canada, such (p.468) errors were rare for the first person, but became increasingly more common as the memory proceeded down the chain. Deletions and alterations also appeared when the harm occurred in Australia, but there was no increase in system-justifying memory errors as the passage was transmitted from person to person.

In our study, the system-justifying memory biases emerged despite the instruction to recall the passage accurately. Also, participants knew that the researchers possessed the original recording and would compare their recall to the original. Consequently, participants would have little to gain by deliberately falsifying their recall. Apparently, the kinds of biases observed in individual recall and historical accounts can arise inadvertently as memories are processed and transmitted.


It is not always possible to whitewash the past by altering and omitting details from history and individual memory. Public monuments and archives often contain alternative renderings of the past that are available for investigation and discovery. Also, members of previously victimized groups sometimes keep memories of their calamities alive and in the public eye. For example, North American Jews conduct annual remembrances of the Holocaust that include public lectures and educational materials for schools. In addition, increasing numbers of previously victimized groups are demanding reparations for past government-sponsored injustices. In Canada, groups representing people of Aboriginal, African, Chinese, Italian, and Ukrainian heritage have sought reparations for past acts of legislative discrimination directed at their groups. They contend that that their people cannot “purge” themselves of this experience without some type of official reparation (formal apology, financial compensation, etc.) from current governments (e.g., Krotz, 2007). Similarly, some African Americans argue for reparations on the grounds that a history of slavery and discrimination can explain why African Americans are relatively disadvantaged compared to their White counterparts (Bitker, 1973).

We next present research that examines how people respond to accounts of officially sanctioned discrimination against a minority. The injustices are real, although we sometimes modify details of the accounts for experimental purposes. The twin motivations to think favorably of ingroups and to perceive the current system as fair should influence how people react to historical harms. Our general experimental strategy is to provide participants with descriptions that vary the location of an injustice, among other factors. In (p.469) many of the studies, the participants were members of the majority group, rather than the minority, victim group, and were not alive when the harm happened.

Social identity and justice theories suggest that majority group members should be reluctant to regard their ingroup and system as responsible for inflicting harm on an innocent minority, but not exhibit the same reluctance for an identical government-sponsored harm perpetrated by another country. When harms are perpetrated outside rather than in one’s home country, the fairness of one’s own system and ingroup is not called into question. Accordingly, people should perceive harmful government-sponsored policies as more unjust and damaging and the victim group as less blameworthy when the episodes occur in a foreign country. In turn, such differing perceptions should lead people to be more supportive of reparations for victim groups harmed by other countries rather than their home country.

In a study evaluating these hypotheses (Blatz, Ross, & Starzyk, under review), participants learned of a government-sponsored harm against an Aboriginal Canadian community. We presented the harm accurately, except for the location. Participants learned that the government-sponsored harm occurred either in Canada or Australia. As expected, our Canadian participants blamed the Aboriginal group more and the government less for a harm that occurred in Canada rather than Australia. Participants also objected more strongly to reparations when the harm occurred in Canada.

How might victims of injustice evoke greater sympathy from the nonvictimized majority in their country? Matsuda (1987) suggested that, in pursuing reparations, previously victimized minority groups need to demonstrate that they are still suffering psychologically, physically, or materially as a consequence of the original harm (Matsuda, 1987). In contrast to Matsuda’s suggestion, justice theorists (e.g., Jost & Banaji, 1994; Lerner, 1980) imply that connecting current suffering to a past injustice could reduce sympathy for the victimized minority. The majority should be reluctant to acknowledge that their system and ingroup perpetrated continuing harm. Instead of being sympathetic, the majority might respond to claims of persistent suffering by blaming the victims for their difficulties.

Suppose that members of the majority believe that reparations are possible and could help rectify the injustice. Would they then be more inclined to respond sympathetically and less disposed to blame the victims? Lerner and Simmons (1966) found that people responded more favorably to an innocent victim when they believed that they could effectively end the victim’s suffering and provide her with rewards. Similarly, we hypothesized that people’s sympathy for the victim group and support for reparations would depend on whether they believe the government could provide satisfactory (p.470) reparations. When reparations seem feasible, members of the majority might be sympathetic to victims who continue to suffer from an earlier injustice. Such suffering victims are likely to seem particularly deserving of support. Even when satisfactory material reparations are impractical, common sense might suggest that people should still feel sympathetic toward the victims and recognize the magnitude of the ongoing harm. However, social psychological theories of justice imply that, when material reparations are impractical, members of the majority will be motivated to restore justice in other ways, such as by downplaying the magnitude of the harm.

We evaluated these hypotheses in a study in which we focused on a government-sponsored harm against a Black community in Canada (Starzyk & Ross, 2008). The information provided to participants was based on an actual incident that occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the 1960s (Clairmont & Magill, 1999). City officials demolished the homes and confiscated the land of members of the Black Canadian community. Participants read a passage describing residents’ reactions to their expulsion. Participants read that horrified residents watched bulldozers destroy their community; residents were moved to new homes that, unlike those destroyed, had running water, electricity, and sewage service. The passage informed participants that although city officials claimed that they relocated the residents for humanitarian reasons, the officials did not consult the residents about the relocation. In the passage, residents express their love for their former community and their belief that the city confiscated the land for economic rather than humanitarian reasons.

Canadians outside of Nova Scotia tend to be unaware of this episode, but former residents of the demolished community and their descendents are currently seeking reparations. We manipulated the feasibility of reparations. We described reparations as either feasible because the confiscated land was undeveloped and still available for the former residents or impractical because the land was unavailable. We also manipulated the former residents’ present state; they were depicted as either continuing to suffer psychologically and materially from the relocation or as doing reasonably well.

When reparations were feasible, participants expressed greater compassion for victims who continued to suffer from effects of the relocation. Participants perceived the magnitude of the injustice to be greater, reported more sympathy for the victims, and judged reparations more favorably. When they can support righting an injustice, people respond benevolently toward suffering victims. When reparations were impractical, participants’ assessments of the magnitude of the injustice and their expressions of sympathy were unaffected by whether the victims continued to suffer. The benevolence toward still suffering victims dissipated when people could not act to right (p.471) the injustice. This finding is consistent with just-world and system justification theories. The research also yielded an unpredicted result: Participants expressed more sympathy for nonsuffering victims when reparations were impractical rather than feasible. When reparations were feasible, participants objected to compensating nonsuffering victims. A feeling of sympathy is likely dissonant with their reluctance to award reparations to victims who are now doing well. To justify their reluctance and reduce dissonance, participants may come to regard the nonsuffering victims as undeserving of compassion.


So far, we have described how members of the majority react to demands by a minority for reparations for historical injustices. Next, we discuss how members of the victimized minority and majority respond to actual offers of reparations. Members of previously victimized minorities often argue that government-sponsored reparations promote healing and allow them to feel better about their own group, the majority, and the political and economic system (Brooks, 1999). Many historians and legal theorists agree that official reparations benefit a victim group (e.g., Brooks, 1999; Minow, 2002). These scholars assume that, in the absence of a collective response, the wounds from the injustice continue to fester, causing resentment and conflict. As evidence, scholars note that Japan’s unwillingness to apologize officially for war crimes it committed during World War II has prevented reconciliation with the harmed groups, whereas Germany’s provision of reparations to some victim groups has facilitated favorable relations (Barkan, 2000). It is difficult to draw general lessons from such examples, however, because the situations and groups involved vary in many ways. Also, historians and legal theorists do not provide a theoretical framework to explain why reparations might have positive effects. Social psychological theories of justice provide a plausible explanation for the benefits of reparations for the minority group. By explicitly condemning past legislative discrimination, apologizing, and offering substantial financial compensation, a current government confirms that the victim group was treated unjustly and affirms the fairness of the present system.

Quite naturally, most of the speculation concerning the effects of reparations focuses on the victimized minority. There is much less discussion about how members of a majority group might respond to reparations. Yet, their reactions are important, because governments often avoid offering apologies or other reparations, in part, because they fear a backlash from the majority (p.472) (Brooks, 1999; Robbins, 2006; Viles, 2002). Nonetheless, members of the majority can benefit from reparations. Majority members may achieve improved intergroup relations and an end to costly litigation if the minority is seeking reparations through the courts. Reparations also demonstrate the commitment of present majority members and the system to fairness and justice. By dissociating the present group from the past group and the present system from the past system, apologies and other reparations can help majority members maintain a positive image of their current group and a belief that the current system is fair.

We focused our study on reparations offered by the Canadian government in 2006 for the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. The Head Tax was a substantial immigration tax that the Canadian government levied only on Chinese between 1885 and 1923 to limit Chinese immigration. The Exclusion Act, implemented by the Canadian government from 1923 to 1947, barred Chinese from entering the country altogether. For many years, Chinese Canadians lobbied for reparations from the government for these discriminatory policies. To understand the impact of reparations, we (Blatz, Ross, Day, & Schryer, 2006) surveyed Chinese Canadians and other Canadians before and after the Canadian government provided reparations.

Before the Canadian government officially apologized and provided compensation, we described the Head Tax and Exclusion Act to Chinese and non-Chinese Canadians and then assessed their perceptions of the victims and the government. For the sample surveyed after the reparations offer, we provided the same information and also included the complete text of the official apology, as well as information about the compensation package. Chinese and non-Chinese Canadians were more likely to report that the Head Tax reflected poorly on the Canadian system of government before than after reparations were provided. We also asked participants from each group to assess the degree to which they shared a common identity (belonged to the same group) with the victims. Non-Chinese participants reported greater shared identity with the Head Tax payers after than before reparations were provided. Chinese participants’ reports of shared identity with the payers were high in either instance and not affected by reparations.

We asked additional questions only after reparations were offered to assess how Chinese and non-Chinese participants evaluated the government’s offer. Both groups assessed the offer quite favorably, but non-Chinese Canadians were particularly enthusiastic. Non-Chinese participants were more likely than Chinese to agree that the apology was complete, that justice had finally been done, and that the reparations package was acceptable. Chinese participants were much more likely than non-Chinese to indicate that the (p.473) children of Head Tax payers should have received compensation if neither parent was alive (they did not). Chinese respondents were also more cynical about the intent of the reparations offer than were non-Chinese, showing greater agreement with the statement that the Prime Minister apologized mainly to win Chinese votes in the next election. These group differences in evaluations of the reparations package were all statistically significant, but let us be absolutely clear: On the whole, Chinese participants viewed the offer favorably, albeit less favorably than the majority, non-Chinese group. Also, although the apology was aimed at all Chinese Canadians, relatively few, and none of our respondents, received direct financial compensation. It remains to be seen how those who receive direct financial compensation would respond to an offer of reparations.

Why were Chinese-Canadian participants less approving of the reparations offer than their non-Chinese counterparts? We focus on three complementary explanations. First, reparations do not restore justice for the minority in the sense that they remove the harm or re-establish the status quo. For example, Japanese Canadians did not have their property returned when they were compensated for being interned during World War II, and the amount of compensation they received was, on average, only a small percentage of their actual financial losses (Brooks, 1999). Similarly, the Head Tax compensation was labelled a “symbol of regret” rather than genuine financial compensation. Indeed, how could any current government compensate for the effects of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act on individuals and their families? The degree of loss and the relative inadequacy of compensation are probably more salient to those who belong to the victim group than to majority group members.

Second, it was the majority and its government representatives who committed the wrong. As a result, the wrong is possibly more threatening to the majority group’s social identity and their beliefs about the fairness of their system. As we have seen, members of the majority support reparations when they are feasible (Starzyk & Ross, 2008). Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper showed that reparations were feasible by providing them; in turn, members of the majority may have been eager to view the reparations package as a successful remedy for an earlier injustice.

Finally, the content of apologies may explain why majority members are more enamored with them. In the next section, we consider how government leaders apologize and how the content of their apologies might contribute to the majority group’s greater enthusiasm. Formal government apologies for historical injustices are quite rare (Brooks, 1999), but there have been enough in recent decades for us to attempt an exploratory analysis.

(p.474) How Governments Apologize

We begin this section by suggesting a template for how governments might devise an effective apology. We then assess, in detail, the degree to which the apology for the Head Tax conforms to this template. We also briefly consider several other government apologies.

In fashioning their apologies, government leaders probably have at least two audiences in mind: The victimized minority and the rest of the population. Government leaders need to make the case to an often sceptical majority that apology and compensation are warranted, especially if the financial package is large (Robbins, 2005; Viles, 2002). Typically, members of the minority will already regard reparations as justified (Viles, 2002). For them, the apology should have the characteristics of a sincere apology, an expression of regret that would satisfy an aggrieved party. Researchers (Darby & Schlenker, 1982; Meier, 1998; Scher & Darley, 1997; Tavuchis, 1991) suggest that an apology will appear sincere when it contains the following elements: Offenders acknowledge the injustice and the suffering it caused; explain their actions and accept responsibility for the harm; and express remorse, offer compensation, and promise to never commit the same injustice again. Most everyday apologies do not contain all of these elements. A simple “I’m sorry” or “sorry” is the norm (Meier, 1998), in part, perhaps, because everyday infractions are often minor rule violations. The historical injustices that result in apologies and material reparations are not trivial, however. As a result, leaders who apologize may go well beyond a simple expression of regret and offer a more complete apology.

The social identity and justice literatures also have implications for the content of government apologies. The apology should praise both the majority and minority group, so as to support positive social identities in both groups. The apology should also affirm the fairness of the current system and dissociate this system from past wrongs.

The apology offered by the Canadian Prime Minister Harper for the Head Tax effectively addresses these issues (Globe and Mail, 2006, June 22). He begins by emphasizing the gravity of the injustice committed against many hardworking, good Chinese immigrants, who were targeted for discrimination solely because of their “race.” Apology and other reparations therefore seem warranted. His statement also includes all of the qualities of a sincere apology. He recognizes the suffering of Head Tax payers: “We acknowledge the high cost of the Head Tax meant many family members were left behind in China, never to be reunited, or that families lived apart and, in some cases, in poverty, for many years.… This was a grave injustice…” He then explains why the injustice occurred: “An attempt to deter immigration.” He (p.475) accepts “moral responsibility,” for acknowledging “these shameful polices of our past.” He expresses “deep sorrow”… “over the racist actions of our past.” He offers “symbolic” financial compensation to the living Head Tax payers or their surviving spouses. He promises to “continually strive to ensure that similar unjust practices are never allowed to happen again.”

Harper also promotes the positive social identities of both groups. He asserts that the Chinese-Canadian community “continues to make such an invaluable contribution to our great country.” He addresses the social identity concerns of the majority by noting that every country makes mistakes and that Canadians are “good,” “just,” and “decent.” He affirms the current system by observing that the injustice happened long ago (“lies far in our past”) and in a different system (“a product of a profoundly different time” in which such discrimination was legal). He assures contemporary non-Chinese Canadians that neither they nor their government were responsible for the injustice, stressing that the apology is “not about liability today.” He also states that the current government and system are redressing past wrongs and will act to prevent future injustices of the same sort. As apologies go, Harper’s is a tour de force.

Is there anything in the apology that might be at least mildly disturbing to Chinese Canadians and contribute to the group differences that we observed in our Head Tax study? We have already noted one point: Chinese respondents in our survey were less satisfied with the government’s refusal to pay compensation to the descendents of Head Tax payers when the Tax payer and his spouse were deceased. We also wonder (and this is sheer speculation) whether there is a certain tension in trying to please two different constituencies and, in particular, whether Harper’s attempts to laud the majority group might have undermined the effectiveness of the apology for Chinese Canadians. Toward the end of his statement, Harper seemed to downplay the culpability of non-Chinese Canadians: “No country is perfect. Like all countries, Canada has made mistakes in its past, and we realize that … Canadians, however, are a good and just people, acting when we’ve committed wrong … it is the decent thing to do, a characteristic to be found at the core of the Canadian soul.” Non-Chinese Canadians might have appreciated this portrayal of the “decent” Canadian more than their Chinese Canadian counterparts, who might have wondered why such decent people behaved so deplorably in the past. Also, use of the term “mistakes” seems to minimize the injustice. The imposition of the Head Tax was not a minor gaffe (like a spelling mistake) or an isolated incident. The Head Tax was a key component of decades of deliberate legislative discrimination against Chinese immigrants.

The reparations package offered by Harper’s government was modeled on the apology and compensation package offered in 1988 to Japanese Canadians for their interment during World War II. Statements in that reparations (p.476) agreement and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s official apology reflected similar efforts to affirm the system and maintain the positive social identity of the majority group (Government of Canada, 1988). The reparations agreement notes that “the principles of justice and equality in Canada are reaffirmed.” In his apology in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Mulroney, like Harper, emphasized that to err is human: “Most of us in our own lives have had occasion to regret certain things that we have done. Error is an ingredient of humanity, so too is apology and forgiveness.”

The apology and reparations to Japanese Canadians did not include explicit indications that the injustices occurred long ago and were perpetuated by a different system. In contrast, such distancing efforts were clearly evident in a statement of regret offered by Ralph Klein (Government of Alberta, 1999), then Premier of Alberta. In 1928, the provincial parliament in Alberta passed the Sexual Sterilization Act, which permitted the forced sterilization of individuals deemed to be mentally disabled. About 2,800 residents of psychiatric institutions were forcibly sterilized from 1928 to 1970. The act was repealed in 1999. Following a great deal of litigation, the provincial Parliament agreed to apologize and financially compensate surviving victims of the sterilization. In offering the “apology,” then Premier Ralph Klein said, “We extend regrets for the actions of another government, in another period of time” (Government of Alberta Apology, 1999). Unlike Harper, Klein did not accept “moral responsibility” for the actions of his predecessors.

A far more generous apology for government-sponsored injustice was offered by former U.S. President Bill Clinton (Clinton Apology, 1993). In a letter addressed to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, Clinton wrote an apology that distanced the episode, expressed sincere regret, emphasized the magnitude of the injustice, condemned the actions of past governments, and affirmed the fairness of the current system:

Over fifty years ago, the United States Government unjustly interned, evacuated, or relocated … many … Japanese Americans.… I offer a sincere apology to you for the actions that unfairly denied Japanese Americans and their families fundamental liberties … we acknowledge the wrongs of the past and offer redress to those who endured such grave injustice. In retrospect, we understand that the nation’s actions were rooted deeply in racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a lack of political leadership. We must learn from the past and dedicate ourselves … to renewing the spirit of equality and our love of freedom. Together, we can guarantee a future with liberty and justice for all.


In this chapter, we examined how social identity concerns and justice motivations influence responses to historical injustices. We found that people (p.477) not belonging to a victimized group often seem unaware of historical injustices in their own country. When past government-sponsored injustices against a minority are made salient, people in the majority group are more inclined to downplay the degree of injustice, blame the victim group, and oppose reparations when the injustices occur in their own country rather than elsewhere. We argued that these results reflect, in part, people’s motivations to protect their social identity and the legitimacy of the social, economic, and political status quo. Our research shows that, when confronted with local historical harms, people can resolve threats to system integrity in a number of ways. They may erase the harm from the historical record, perceive the injustice as less severe, blame the victims for their problems, or dissociate the present system from the injustice. Alternatively, when government reparations for historical injustices are warranted and possible, people sympathize with still-suffering victims and support measures to alleviate the injustice.

In the final sections of the chapter, we examined the impact and content of government offers of reparations. Government apologies and compensation packages can lead members of both the victimized minority and nonvictimized majority to report more faith in the fairness of their political and economic system. Government reparations seem to produce an especially favorable response from members of the nonvictimized majority. The positive effects of government apologies are probably related to the actual content of the apologies. Governments often apologize in ways that address the identity concerns of both the victimized minority and the nonvictimized majority. Although they are generous in their praise of all of their people, governments seem less inclined to extol the fairness of their political and social system. Perhaps they suppose that the apology, itself, can serve this important psychological function.


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