The Arc

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

Polio Eradicated

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.

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 stopped moving forward.

Maybe tomorrow, we start 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.


One thought on “The Arc

  1. What a wonderful way in which you have couched this reflection. The thing is, for me, everyone who longs for that leap over the gap, so that we can take the next step, seems to be waiting for a sudden tipping point—the gifted orator, the 50-million Person March, justice from the hand of the government (never mind that it is not designed to accommodate such fundamental change). Waiting …

    Why have those of sympathetic inclination and the power to hire, set salaries, mentor, and demand staff behavioral (professional and workplace sociability-wise) accountability; why have they not simply acted within their spheres of influence? And, when did the inclusion of a single person in the workplace or social circle accomplish the goal of “diversity?” The well-meaning seem to be able to stop at one “other” in the group. There!, contributions to societal progress accomplished, job well-done!

    I am at a stage of life where my influence does not have the impact it once did and all this time, I, too, have been waiting for that mass movement, the magic trick that would allow us to wake to something not so biased and self-defeating. It was only in this response that I realized that I have options for action that don’t require 49,999,999 allies to join me. For example, I could stop bemoaning being the only Black person in the group; on the job; at the restaurant; or, the gallery and instead, simply invite someone to come along. Having expressed the idea, it feels inconsequential. But, perhaps the important point is that “each one must accept the responsibility to do what can be done.” Within that is change, be it toward the further institutionalization of America’s inbred biases and racism or toward something new and inherently better.

    As always, thanks for your insights! Perhaps I’ll live long enough to get a glimpse of the next 50-year headline. Sure hope it isn’t about gloom, doom, and destruction!


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