Thursday, August 27, 2020

Martin and his Moral Arc

"The mythology of racial progress exerts a powerful hold on our minds." Mythology. That's the thesis of Jennifer A. Richeson in an article in The Atlantic titled "Americans Are Determined to Believe in Black Progress." Maybe I was primed to accept her pessimism. In any case, I kept finding myself nodding and quietly saying, uh huh.

I grew up wanting to believe that Martin Luther King's axiom was true: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I was young when America passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. MLK's axiom seemed to be coming true right before my eyes. I clung to that hope in spite of all the setbacks to civil rights in the years after. The breaking point probably came in 2017 when the Roberts Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had made it a requirement that states seek federal review before any changes to voting laws. Immediately, states began passing a flurry of laws whose effect is again to make it harder to vote, all in the name of fighting voter fraud.

This was consistent with the pattern exposed in Ava DuVernay's documentary "13th," one of the few movies I've given a grade of "A+". Here's what I wrote when I saw it in 2017: "Criminalization of race is the new Jim Crow. The new slavery. The same old evil, erupting in new form each generation. Wow."

Now I read Richeson's article about how "believing that things are always getting better actually makes them worse." The belief spawns complacency. We fall into the comfortable falsehood that things will get better on their own, as if MLK's adage is some kind of natural law. As if all things race are better today than they were in the past. They aren't. Richeson offers a damning case in point, a case where believing things are better is a trick of the mind we let ourselves fall for:

In a 2019 study, using a dozen specific moments between 1963 and 2016, we compared perceptions of racial wealth inequality over time with actual data on racial wealth inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents in our study significantly overestimated the wealth of Black families relative to that of white families. In 1963, the median Black family had about 5 percent as much wealth as the median white family. Respondents said close to 50 percent. For 2016, the respondents estimated Black wealth to be 90 percent that of whites. The correct answer for that year was about 10 percent.

People’s estimates of inequality were not only far too low for every period, but the estimates actually grew more inaccurate the closer they got to the present. People are willing to assume that things were at least somewhat bad 50 years ago, but they also assume that things have gotten substantially better—and are approaching parity. The mythology of racial progress exerts a powerful hold on our minds.

Fifty years on from Martin Luther King, we assume that the moral arc he talked about must surely have bent a good deal towards justice by now. But that arc snaps back each time we let up on it in the least. Martin and his arc are more like Sysiphus and his rock. As another author in The Atlantic, Mychal Denzel Smith, argues in a separate article, "The power brokers who would have opposed [King] now use him to ensure that the democracy he envisioned never comes to fruition. They adopted King as a historic cudgel, because you can make a dead man believe whatever you want." It's time to retire MLK's adage. It's been co-opted by the status quo. It works against us. It's time to get back to MLK's life work of us pushing on that arc, now and forever, amen. It doesn't bend itself. It doesn't stay bent without constant pressure.

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