The election of Barack Obama was heralded as a high-water mark for race relations in America. Now as his presidency ends, some are questioning the progress we’ve made amid riots, protests, shootings of both unarmed black men and police, and the evolution of a Black Lives Matter movement.
It seems that our nation reached a pinnacle only to lose ground already gained. We took two steps forward in racial equality and hit a wall of resistance that pushed us one step back.
But this is what progress looks like in America. It has historically come in fits and starts and often makes us feel like we haven’t moved forward at all.
The Brown vs. Board of Education decision is hailed today as landmark legislation that ended school segregation. But it was followed by aggressive defiance that led to de facto segregation and legal barriers that slowed its full implementation.
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Even when the civil rights laws were enacted in the 1960s, the celebration quickly gave way to conflict as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and rioting engulfed our major cities.
America’s ebb and flow of social progress extends well beyond racial lines. Historians point to the Stonewall riots as a major spark that ignited the gay rights movement more than 45 years before the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriages legal. And, most notably, our nation was born from triumph over a British tyranny whose resistance to change spawned a bloody eight-year battle known as the American Revolution.
Conflicts arise because the expansion of civil rights creates the perception that some must lose power in order for others to gain. But the struggle for freedom and equality is never a zero-sum game. Instead of tuning each other out, let’s embrace the tension as an opportunity to share how we see progress differently.
At the heart of our crossroads today are differing views of King’s dream. Some point to the emergence of a Hispanic and black middle class, growing diversity within Fortune 500 companies and a spike in interracial marriages as the fulfillment of King’s vision laid out 53 years ago. But others interpret these triumphs as mere pit stops on the path to a more perfect union.
Our visions of racial equality shouldn’t stall with the image of blacks and whites sitting together at the same lunch counter. There are crucial conversations that must take place during the meal. Pain and confusion breeds a shared vulnerability that urges us to work out differences in dialogue rather than through tweets, talking heads or gunfire.
This can lead to discomfort at times as we’re encouraged to approach conversations and assumptions on race with fresh nuance. But as a good friend of mine once said: When you’re used to privilege, equality can sometimes feel like oppression.
By avoiding these conversations, we actually increase the likelihood of conflict. We risk dividing into factions that could destroy the fabric of our government. History and political commentators are reminding us that fascism grew from a weak democracy rather than a strong one.
Instead of arguing that “we need to make America great again” or that “America was never great,” we’re better off asking one another and ourselves what conversations need to happen to make America greater tomorrow. Because honestly, that’s what progress looks like.
Spencer Hardwick, formerly an institutional sales analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York, now teaches fifth grade at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.