The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
It’s a reassurance Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included in several of his speeches over the years, one he shared with crowds across the country.
And if we look at history a certain way, the arc contracts. Dr. King was born 64 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment. President Obama was born only 32 years after that. From 1865 to 1964—less than a century separates the birth of the last person born into slavery from the birth of the first black U.S. president.
The Idea of Continuous Racial Progress
The progress is undeniable. But it wasn’t inevitable. It certainly wasn’t continuous. And we do our students a disservice if we represent our history otherwise.
Far too often, though, the history of race and racism is presented as a story of continuous progress. As TT Staff Writer Coshandra Dillard explains, “[t]he overall narrative [of black history] goes something like this: America overcame slavery, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped usher in new civil rights laws, and then we elected the first black president.”
According to our Teaching Hard History report, this focus on progress—the idea of a nation that faced down its sins and fought off its demons—is as common as it is problematic.
The report identifies this idea as one of the key problems in current pedagogy around American slavery: “We tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved.”
To insist on a history of continuous racial progress is to neglect an honest accounting of the fits and starts, the half-steps and missed opportunities that come with any struggle for justice. It is, instead, to offer students what Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries—also the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board chair—calls “the Disney version of history.” It’s a history, he writes, “in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better.”
The idea of continuous racial progress isn’t merely inaccurate. It’s harmful. “It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate [Jim Crow laws and other] legal barriers to equality,” Jeffries explains, “but that has not been enough to erase race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education to employment to wealth and well-being.”
Those disparities, which persist today, are further exacerbated by “public policies [that] tend to treat ... racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.”
Downplaying or erasing the periods when the nation moved away from justice does little to help our students understand the present-day impact of structures that uphold injustice.
To question or trouble the idea of continuous racial progress is not to deny there has been progress. As Professor Ibram X. Kendi points out, “That progress has been real over the course of history, and to deny its forward march is to deny all the successes of courageous activists who challenged slavery, and who are challenging segregation and poverty.”
Educators can honor that progress without presenting students with “the Disney version of history.” Here are a few ways to start.
We can teach the history of racism, not just the history of racial progress.
Kendi recommends that we remember anti-racists aren’t the only activists who have gathered others to their cause to shape law and policy. In place of a “single historical force” pushing us toward racial justice, he proposes imagining “two historical forces at work: a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism.”
To think of history in this way is to recognize that working for equity means fighting to protect rights we’ve already won—and that sometimes we lose those fights.
Students tend to think of the fight for civil rights as though there has always been a set list of hurdles to be overcome—slavery, then racial terror, then segregation, then disenfranchisement, then mass incarceration. It’s our job to help them understand that these aren’t discrete, predestined fights. Each hurdle sprang up in response to a step forward.
But hurdles themselves are a bad metaphor, implying that the pushback against racial justice is predictable and solid. A better way of thinking about it might be water—racism will take the shape of whatever will hold it. Sometimes the response to racial progress is quick and fierce, as in the Jim Crow laws and the racial terror that followed Reconstruction and COINTELPRO's targeting of black activist organizations when so much coalition-building was happening in the 1960s. Other times it’s a slow-rising tide, so that 54 years after the Voting Rights Act, we find voter suppression is on the rise. And 65 years after Brown v. Board, we’re still fighting to end school segregation.
We can teach the missed opportunities.
To ignore the history of racist progress in the U.S. is to ignore all the moments when a “more perfect union” seemed possible, but never came to be. It’s widely known that Dr. King was still at the start of his Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated. What would that work look like today if he had lived and continued that campaign? What kinds of allegiances might have grown up in the 50 years since his death? What kinds of priorities?
The idea of history as continuous racial progress shuts down these questions. If we’re always getting better, there’s no reason to ask: What would our nation look like if the Freedman’s Bureau had been able to follow through on their promise of land to those who’d been enslaved? If the right to vote had been protected for black men beginning with the 15th Amendment in 1870? If black women had been able to vote in 1920?
Teaching the missed opportunities offers students a more accurate understanding of American history and invites them to think big, to contemplate how our nation might become more just.
We can teach the present.
Right now, for example, a national discussion is unfolding around reparations. If we’ve encouraged students to think of history not as a smooth progression but rather as a series of opportunities, then we’ve given them the tools to engage more critically in this discussion. They can recognize the historical context and think ahead to consider how such a decision might affect future generations.
Understanding that the civil rights movement wasn’t inevitable, it’s easier for students to build connections, to see how arguments about patriotism and civility regarding #TakeAKnee are similar to those leveled against Dr. King and others in the movement.
We can let activists be models.
When we do teach about racist progress, it’s often in terms of the people who worked to fight it. But it’s worth considering how we present these figures. How do we help students recognize themselves in the activists we present in our classrooms? How do we suggest—even unintentionally—that these “heroes” are somehow a special type of person, set apart and inimitable?
For example, it’s worth considering how often we hear that Dr. King “gave his life for racial justice” or “sacrificed his life for a better world.” These statements imply an exchange—as though his murder unlocked something or that his death effected change, rather than his lifetime of work.
How might students relate differently to Dr. King if, instead of a martyr, they saw a model? To teach students about the work Dr. King began that remains undone—his work on poverty, for example—does not diminish his work. It shows students how they can join it.
On March 31, 1968, four days before he’d be assassinated, Dr. King spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He outlined the work of his Poor People’s Campaign, detailed his objections to the Vietnam War and reminded his listeners that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” But at the close of his speech, he offered hope: “We shall overcome,” he told the crowd, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Delacroix is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.