Societal optimists make a point about the positive bend in the arc of a historical narrative by imagining the 50-year newspaper. If instead of daily, where the very real motivation of “if it bleeds, it leads” brings car crashes, violent crimes and op-eds about the collapse of civilization as we know it into the front of our minds, 50-year headlines would tell a very different tale.
The last two would look something like the following:
Fascism Defeated in Europe.
Women to Vote
Cold War Ends Without Firing a Shot.
Humans Live 20 Years Longer
Men Fly, Split the Atom, Land on the Moon etc.
Events like 9/11 make it in only in a slow half century.
If we narrow the exercise to the arc of racial equality in the American experience, we see something different. We see the original American sin of slavery; then a slow, painful bend towards abolition, citizenship, separate but equal and then integration. What’s missing is the cruel gap that too gentle arc has opened up in our society. African American households possess 13 times less wealth and earn 40% less income than white households in today’s America. They are twice as likely to be poor and five times as likely to be incarcerated than white Americans. It’s not a gap that’s opened up. It’s one that never closed. And the trends aren’t really improving. While the graphs of American abundance have marched higher for nearly all demographics, including African Americans, the relative gap still persists, frozen in time. In terms of racial equality, today’s 50-year newspaper would read Dr. King Assassinated. First African American President Elected. And I’m not sure what else.
We’re still segregated—no longer by law but economics, culture and political beliefs. The cruel socio-economic outcomes of a half millennia of oppression in our hemisphere are ever present. What I found most troubling about the political developments of the last two years in America and the populist trend that brought us the current Administration is the ease of the backslide. Whether or not the platform was one of overt racism is a reasonable debate. The troubling reality was that it didn’t need to be. The windows were cracked. The door was opened just enough. And the sickness of mainstream racism growing beneath the floorboards of America bloomed again.
Clearly, it wasn’t gone. My concern isn’t rooted in a naive belief that it was, but instead a deep longing for an end to the divide. What would we need to believe has happened for the next 50-year headline to read “Racial Opportunity Gap Eliminated?” What progress would need to be made? What has to change? What tools are required?
Is there a relative movement for one group over another? Or is it a whole society movement towards an abundance that makes the existing gap a rounding error. No longer a gap. But a crack on the sidewalk of America, easily stepped over.
The trouble of our times is that the arc has flattened. And there are forces at work that can and will bend it the wrong direction. 50 years to the day after the death of Dr. King, it’s worth reflecting on the shape of that arc. Robert Kennedy’s question, delivered to a somber crowd in Indianapolis 50 years ago today is worth asking again.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”
Nations of abundance, diversity and equality of opportunity are rare in history. It’s a promise America has never delivered on. It’s a destination, over the horizon. And for now, at least, we’ve slowed progress forward. Maybe tomorrow, we start to gain again says the optimist. And I hope we do. Because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before that headline reads what it needs to.