The False Narrative for Progress
Photo Credits: Gordon Parks, Untitled, Washington DC (1963)
By Esther Alatishe
During this intense time in which Black Lives Matter protests and advocacy are sweeping through cities and social media, many are declaring that it is time for a change. At the macro-level, it is time for substantial changes in our criminal justice, economic, medical, and educational institutions. Without a doubt, it has always been time for these changes. The protests are not about an insulated issue that has suddenly resurfaced in our political sphere. They are about the foundational issue of racism, which has affected every aspect of this country and done so with or without the presence of cameras.
Though we may understand that we are not witnessing some abrupt return of institutional racism, it’s important that our words clarify instead that we are witnessing a shift in our media’s focus. Doing so allows us to recognize that the struggle is not about our current time period in which police brutality is at the forefront of all our news. This struggle is centered on institutional changes because we know the media’s main focus will shift again; furthermore, the media (both news and social) is inevitably unable to bring all tragic stories to public knowledge. The specific case of George Floyd’s murder undoubtedly needs just convictions, but the outrage cannot stop after the trials. It must instead challenge the macro-level conditions that allow such cases, publicly known or not, to occur.
It has also been time for changes at the micro-level. As individuals, these changes include, but are not limited to, self-examinations of the following: our content consumption; ideas with historical roots in antiblackness; instances in which we have committed or failed to confront microaggressions; our assumptions on social change. This last point is one that I believe is not emphasized enough but unfortunately leaves the greatest impact.
When it comes to social change, there is a popular narrative that progressiveness is inevitable. This is a narrative we were taught since elementary school. We are expected to understand the country’s eras of abolitionism, of Reconstruction, of the racial uplift ideology, of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement as chapters of unfolding history. We are destined for political, economic, and social equity. I have been guilty of reasoning this way. Maybe I do it because of hope or, unfortunately, a deeper belief in American exceptionalism (“maybe a country that claims freedom and equality will naturally get to that stage?”) Either way, there is nothing terrible about believing in a better future. The problem is when this assumption delays action in the present. A quote that has been circulating during this time is from James Baldwin in an interview:
What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost sixty years ago. I’m not going to live another sixty years. You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?
Hidden in the assumption of inevitable positive social change is a de-emphasis of action and accountability. Yes, the demographics of this country are moving away from a privileged majority, naturally leading to conversations on race and racism. Yes, the power of social media is only growing, naturally increasing the world’s interconnectedness and the efficient spread of information. And absolutely-yes, the struggles and movements within Black history (which is, by the way, inseparable from “American history”) have brought us to where we are today with many opportunities and advantages, relatively speaking. All of these factors are important to the topic of social change. Also important, however, is the fact that social change can be positive or negative, and that this outcome is dependent on action and not assumptions. Inspiring this action are the micro-level changes needed to empower a movement for all of the progressive macro-level changes.