This is a uniquely American mythology. Since the nation’s founding, its prevailing cultural sensibility has been optimistic, future-oriented, sure of itself, and convinced of America’s inherent goodness. Despite our tragic racial history, Americans generally believe that the country has made and continues to make steady progress toward racial equality. Broad acceptance of this trajectory underlies the way our leaders talk. It also influences the way racism is treated in popular culture.
When we think about the nation’s racial history, we often envision a linear path, one that, admittedly, begins in a shameful period but moves unerringly in a single direction—toward equality. As if we’re riding a Whiggish escalator, the narrative of racial progress starts with slavery, ascends to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, speeds past segregation and Jim Crow to the victories of the civil-rights movement, and then drops us off in 2008 for Barack Obama’s election. Many people asserted at the time that America had become a “postracial” society, or was at least getting close—maybe one more short escalator ride away. This redemptive narrative not only smooths over the past but smooths over what is yet to come: It holds out the promise of an almost predestined, naturally occurring future that will be even more just and egalitarian.
Thinking this way won’t make the future better.
The mythology of racial progress distorts our perceptions of reality; perhaps more significantly, it absolves us of responsibility for changing that reality. Progress is seen as natural and inevitable—inescapable, like the laws of physics. Backsliding is unlikely. Vigilance is unnecessary.
It is obviously true that many of the conditions of life for Black Americans have gotten better over time. Material standards have in many ways improved. Some essential civil rights have advanced, though unevenly, episodically, and usually only following great and contentious effort. But many areas never saw much progress, or what progress was made has been halted or even reversed. The mythology of racial progress often rings hollow when it comes to, for instance, racial gaps in education. Or health outcomes. Or voting rights. Or criminal justice. Or personal wealth. History is not a ratchet that turns in one direction only. Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And maybe it will, in the end. But in our actual lifetimes we see backward steps and tragic detours.
From the October 2018 issue: Ibram X. Kendi on a house still divided
The protests that began in late May have focused on fundamental questions of police violence and civil rights. This sort of awakening offers great opportunity—more on that in a moment—but it is rare in our history, and challenges the nation’s prevailing psychology. My own research as a social psychologist focuses in part on racial wealth disparities—particularly, what people do and don’t believe, and do and don’t acknowledge about those disparities. Unless people understand the systemic forces that create and sustain racial inequality, we will never successfully address it. But perceptions, it turns out, are slippery.