Racism, as an institution and as a social issue, can often seem intractable. Looking to the past for a solution is futile; no society in human history has been able to overcome it. In the present, we have made progress, but we have by no means become “post-racial.” So, the solution, if there is one, will lie in the future.
Many people in the United States today are cautiously optimistic about the future of race, and with good reason. According to a 2009 Pew Research Survey, Millennials are the “most open to change of any generation,” including the issue of race, being “significantly more tolerant than previous generations.” As a result, the narrative of generational progress remains dominant. It goes, when the generation of baby boomers finally passes away, and Millennials gain ever increasing control over the trajectory of their own futures, racism will continue to fade on its own.
Of course, there is truth to this. Children growing up in the late 20th and early 21st centuries live in a completely different world than their grandparents grew up in. The climate of racial attitudes has shifted drastically. Blatant racism is absolutely unacceptable to most Americans, and discrimination on the basis of race in employment or housing is illegal.
However, this progress in advancing the rights of black Americans, as many often forget, has not materialized out of thin air. The fact that Millennials are more tolerant and progressive on the issue of race than every other generation is unsurprising. The environment they live in is considerably less racist by almost all accounts, but those steps on the path toward equality have been hard-fought and incrementally won. In other words: Yes, the moral arc of the universe is long, and it does bend toward justice, but only with conscious effort and determination.
It has been not even 200 years since “Dred Scott,” when the highest court in the land decided that black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” And, it has been just over 50 years since the first Civil Rights Act, and just 48 years since the King Assassination Riots. Racial equality and antidiscrimination is a recent invention, and it is still not yet on stable footing.
Black Americans still face a multitude of societal, economic and cultural problems, and these problems need to be solved, but they certainly will not solve themselves. To claim that racism is on a path to extinction, and it will simply continue to fall away with each generation, to assert that there is nothing more for us to do but wait, is absolutely absurd.
If we forget the difficult struggles for the basic rights of black Americans, first freedom, then citizenship, then voting rights, then finally a tenuous legal equality, and reduce them to a product of the idle passing of time, we simultaneously deny our history and lose hope for our future.
Resigning ourselves from the active fight for racial equality to instead playing the passive generational “waiting game” is a disgrace to the long and tumultuous history of the civil rights movement, and will be the death of racial progress.