Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Over Thanksgiving, VOX published a post, 26 Charts and Maps to be Thankful For, showing how the world is getting better. Extreme poverty has fallen globally. Hunger is falling. Child labor is in decline. Life expectancy is rising. Death is childbirth is rarer. Teen births in the US are down. War is on the decline. Homicide rates are falling in Europe and the US. Violent crime is down in the US, and there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world. Democracy is spreading, and far more people are going to school around the world.
These are all data points demonstrating progress, however halting and grinding, across fundamental human experiences. I was happy to see it and share it, especially after weeks of bad news about racial injustice, police violence, brutal fundamentalism and vicious anger toward immigrants and the poor, but what is the cost of celebrating incremental systemic improvement?
Falling infant mortality rates are cold comfort to a mother who cannot feed her baby healthy meals in a food desert. Improving statistics on violent crime do not comfort the kid whose big brother is shot in the street. The Dreamer who can stay to learn and work still sleeps in fear that she can lose her family at any moment.
Celebrating progress can deaden the fierce urgency of now, and marking progress can give cover to those who would stonewall and apologize for the status quo. “Look, it’s better than it was. Calm down.” All of these trends threaten someone’s power or wealth; otherwise, the progress would not be incremental.
Ignoring or rejecting signs of progress, however, can generate more problems. At some point, the lesson of history becomes clear, and the scales tip toward justice. The advocates of justice and progress in the face of entrenched power eventually can claim with strength that they are on the right side of history and can put the inertia of power on defense. The narrative changes to favor justice, to regard demonstrators not at agitators but as heroes. Everyone will want to claim that they were on the side of justice all along, not waiting to see which way the battle will end. The social struggle continues, but the outcome is more secure.
In an interview this week, Chris Rock responded to a question critical of incremental change in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act, citing examples of cruel rhetoric in our politics:
. . . . The stuff you’re talking about is pockets though. There’s always going to be people that don’t know that the war’s over. I’m more optimistic than you, but maybe it’s because I live the way I do. I just have a great life, so it’s easier for me to say things are great. But not even me. My brothers drive trucks and stock shelves. They live in a much better world than my father did. My mother tells stories of growing up in Andrews, South Carolina, and the black people had to go to the vet to get their teeth pulled out. And you still had to go to the back door, because if the white people knew the vet had used his instruments on black people, they wouldn’t take their pets to the vet. This is not some person I read about. This is my mother.
Without hope that the world can and does change, the struggle for justice becomes a fruitless, foolish chasing after the wind. It is the bulwark of the status quo, of the powerful, to convince the oppressed that they should be oppressed, always will be and always have been. Claims to the natural order of hierarchy or the divine imprimatur to rule need the world to be static. Marking progress and demonstrating change proves that the world is not static, and perhaps, just maybe, the long arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice.
De facto segregation is stubborn. De jure segregation died hard, though, and this shows that segregation is not inevitable. Systemic sexism promotes objectification and exploitation of women and girls. Women have voted for a century, though, and their suffrage has radically changed the substance of our laws, politics and governance, showing that patriarchy and misogyny are not necessary to the natural order. Systemic racism permeates our society and our institutions. No one serious or respectable will claim to be a white supremacist or will claim Jim Crow, and the shame of saying it out loud shows how the narrative can change. People still hunt for health care that does not bankrupt their families. Systemic healthcare reform and access to insurance demonstrate that quality care is not ordained for some and forever elusive to others.
Claiming victory and marking progress prove that injustice is not static and entrenched but that we can achieve it in increasing measure, however incrementally.
Marking progress can energize the urgency of movements toward justice by giving hope of success, while risking the despair of disappointment. In a 1988 Ebony article, Rosa Parks said, “I find that if I’m thinking too much of my own problems and the fact that at times things are not just like I want them to be, I don’t make any progress at all. But if I look around and see what I can do, and go on with that, then I move on.”
I am largely immune from the bad statistics, largely safe from the bad outcomes and systemic injustices. King is right that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, so inasmuch as we can, we enter the struggle for the sake of every community. As a person of privilege across several intersections, I must learn the stories and lessons from Rosa Parks and Chris Rock without appropriating their stories as my own. I must guard against the comfort that I can take from abstract statistics even as I provide legal services to vulnerable clients who are facing immediate crises that are not at all abstract. I want to learn from history and from those we serve in struggles for justice to give proper weight to hope and progress, to urgency and criticism. I want to learn from the progress of justice movements without diminishing the anguish of current events, but I also take courage, strength and inspiration from the battles so far.
Self-destructive injustice is not inevitable or ordained in nature. The arc really does bend, so long as we work to bend it.