Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was an abolitionist who once said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
This was abbreviated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech of August 1967 where he said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I share that sentiment. In general, I am optimistic about the future in the long term. But when it comes to the shorter term, I am much more optimistic when it comes to social issues and than I am on matters of economic justice and inequality. As for the latter, I see things getting a lot worse before they start to get better, and it could get quite violent because there is only so much exploitation and injustice and misery that people can put up with before they revolt. When it comes to the former, on issues such as equality for women and the LGBT community, the road has not been smooth, with one step back for every two steps forward, but there has been general forward progress and I expect it to continue.
But there is one social issue in the US in which I think that we have actually regressed in the past few years and that is with respect to race and ethnicity. We are now in a very ugly period in race relations. And oddly enough, it was the election of Barack Obama, the very event that had people speculating as to whether America had entered a post-racial phase, that seems to have made things worse. What is strange is that Obama is exactly the kind of person of color, urbane and well educated, that one would have expected to be acceptable to whites and was likely the key to his electoral success. One would never have expected Malcolm X to be elected president. Even Martin Luther King Jr. in his time was far too radical and outspoken for the general public, however much he is treated as an icon now. Obama is straight out of central casting of the kind of black person that white people, especially the elites, would find acceptable. He is Sydney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? He is similar to Tiger Woods (before his scandal phase) in that if you were forced to admit people of color into your country club, then someone like Woods be the person you would let in.
But even with that limitation, his election was progress. It was hoped that Obama would be the kind of non-threatening black person that would open the door of opportunity wider and allow for others to follow.
But things have gone utterly awry. Obama’s presidency coincided with a Republican strategy of completely paralyzing the government by opposing many of his appointments and policies. And not just opposing politically but using hyperbolic demonizing rhetoric and calling him a tyrant and dictator, charges that should be laughable. They adopted a scorched Earth policy that did not care if ordinary people were hurt as long as Obama was seen as a failure. Was their motivation racist? Who knows? But what is obvious is that their unrelentingly harsh public rhetoric against him seems to have provided an opening for all the racists to come out of the woodwork. Republican party opposition has provided them with the cover they needed to shield them from charges of racism though I have no doubt that much of the overt hostility that has been expressed against Obama is rooted in racism. Such people see Obama as not belonging in the White House just as I am sure that many country club members are not pleased to see people of color as members.
It has been quite astonishing and depressing to see the level of racism, both overt and coded, that I have witnessed in the media and by politicians and the general public over the past few years. It is being manifested in many ways, from the heightened tensions between blacks and whites, the hostility being displayed towards Latinos especially in the immigration debate, the way that Muslims have been demonized, and a vague generalized xenophobia that sees the rest of the world as somehow trying to take from Americans what is rightfully theirs.
Racism has always been an inescapable subtext in American life. I had not expected to see it getting so much worse the way it has the past few years and I am not optimistic that it will change for the better any time soon.