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Millert Memorial speaker lectures on the psychology of American racism

For 12 years, the Millert Memorial Speaker Series has honored Olaf and Juta Millert, the founders of St. Olaf College’s psychology department. Olaf founded the series of annual lectures in honor of Juta, his wife, who passed away in 2009. In 2010, St. Olaf welcomed its first expert speaker on psychology, Dr. Dan McAdams. Since then, the psychology department has hosted lectures on a wide variety of topics, including the psychology of money by Dr. Kathleen Vohs, free will and determinism by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, and, in 2021, Reflections On Resilience in the Wake of COVID-19 by Dr. Ann Masten.

On Sept. 19, the department’s guest speaker was Steven O. Roberts, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Roberts received his associate’s degree from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, his bachelor of science degree from New York University, and master of science and doctor of philosophy degrees from the University of Michigan.

Roberts’ lecture, entitled “The Psychology of American Racism,” was an examination of those who are advantaged and disadvantaged by racism and those who research said groups, their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviors. Though this is his first time speaking at St. Olaf, and his first lecture in over two years, Roberts has given versions of this lecture in the past. The bulk of his presentation consisted of factors that produce what Roberts called “A System of (Dis)Advantage Based on Race,” or the system of bias and discrimination that is present in our society.

One such factor was hierarchy. On this topic, Roberts discussed the depiction of a Christian God as a Black woman. He included samples of opinions on The Creation of Adam recreated by an Afro-Cuban artist; one quote, by an African-American woman, says, “The artist is challenging the notion that #1 God is a man, #2 God is white. If I were at an art gallery and saw this painting, I would walk by shaking my head as it is just one more politically correct recreation of who God is. Disgusting!” Morgan Caldwell ’26 found this interesting from the perspective of an African-American Christian. She was both surprised and not surprised by the opinion stated in the sample quote.

Professor Roberts ended his presentation by talking about the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Roberts shared data on how depression, anxiety, and anger increased in groups across the United States following Floyd’s death.

When asked if she would attend events like this in the future, Caldwell said she would. “I’m actually very curious about all this,” she said.

Professor Gary Muir, associate professor and department chair of psychology at St. Olaf, recommended this lecture to everyone. “It’s great for students to hear about these things,” he said, in reference to the real life issues Roberts presented from “a perspective of knowledge.” Other professors who attended the lecture agreed, and another student stated that anyone who did not attend was missing out.

Roberts’ key takeaway on the information he presented was that although racism is highly present in our society, “it doesn’t have to be.” His lecture left a profound effect on professors and students alike, and not just those from the psychology department. In addition, Roberts stated that he is honored to have his name added to the list of Millert Memorial speakers at St. Olaf College.