Does the arc bend, slowly, towards justice? Or is the course that was set at our nation’s founding so deeply misguided that progress towards true justice is asymptotic? Must we, in fact, break the arc and create a new structure?
It has become gospel for activists of my generation that in the final years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he had become more radical about economic justice and about the tactics needed to win structural change. The Poor People’s Campaign he was planning at the time of his death was to include, in his words, “nonviolent sabotage,” poor people “lying on highways, blocking doors at government offices, and mass school boycotts.” Such “militant tactics,” King believed, were as “dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots” in inner cities, “without destroying property.”
Bold too were the policy demands he envisioned to surpass the victories in accommodations and voting—gaining a seat at the table—this time, a demand to fundamentally reset the table…with a multibillion dollar Marshall Plan for the cities, a guaranteed national income for the poor and government control of major industries. That vision, obviously, never came to pass.
Was King right that the reforms he won, whose anniversaries we now celebrate, were not enough? It’s impossible to truly judge without acknowledging that the decade after the civil rights movement’s peak, a new movement began, nominally unrelated to race, that dramatically concentrated economic and political power. Just as women and people of color entered the mainstream of our democracy and our economy, the rules were changed in both. Today, 50 years after Voting Rights Act, a nearly all-white donor class acts as unofficial gatekeepers to levels of government that are 90 percent white. Productivity has been so decoupled from returns to workers that half of Americans couldn’t pay a $400 bill without going into debt or selling something. And all the while, the right wing never stopped talking about race, in terms explicit and coded—only those advocating for social justice did.
Demos senior fellow Ian Haney-Lopez reminds us in his book Dog-Whistle Politics that the success of this movement has been deeply connected to race; that elites have used strategic racism to link government with underserving minorities, shrinking the permissive sphere of the public and expanding the corporate domain. Given all of this, we must ask, what would the deeper level of structural change look like today? Is it King’s bolder tactics in activism? Bolder policies? Undoubtedly, it’s yes to both.
But I would challenge us to remember that tactics and policies are expressions of a belief, and it is time to face our most deep-seated one. When the arc in America bends from slavery in the 1860s and returns to convict leasing in the 1880s, when it bends from Jim Crow in the 1960s and returns to mass incarceration in the 1990s…when it bends from Native American genocide to an epidemic of Native American suicides…when it bends, finally, from redlining in the 1980s and returns to predatory lending and an historic theft of wealth twenty years later… when the arc bends, but as a tree does in the wind, only to sway back, we have to admit that we have not touched the root.
And at that level, there is no line between our past and our ideal future; there must be a break: the great lie at the root of our nation’s founding was a belief in the hierarchy of human value. And we are still there.
We are still there, when a cashier making $7.25 an hour can buy $7.25 an hour’s worth of food for her family, $7.25 an hour’s worth of education for her children, but she also seems to only merit $7.25 worth of esteem in our political culture, and most dangerously, only $7.25 worth of voice in our democracy.
On this very day in politics, we are still there. The racial panic of this moment is challenging us to shed our movement’s self-imposed colorblindness and engage forcefully in this question: Who is an American? What are we to one another? We have to admit that this question is harder for us than in most other countries, because we are the world’s most radical experiment in democracy, a nation of ancestral strangers that has to find connection even as we grow more diverse every day.
But everything depends on the answers to this question: who is an American, and what are we to one another? Politics offers two visions of why the peoples of the world have met here: One in which we are nothing more than competitors, and another in which the proximity of so much difference forces us to admit our common humanity.
The choice between these two visions has never been more stark. To a nation riven with anxiety about who belongs, politicians and pundits have made it their overarching goal to sow distrust about the goodness of the other. They’re saying that demographic changes are the unmaking of America. We must proclaim that no—they are the fulfillment of it.
Our politics are being dominated by those who are holding on, white knuckled, to a tiny idea of “we the people,” who are doing everything to deny the beauty of what we are becoming. Against this resistance, we must declare that what they are calling a threat is in fact our country’s salvation—for when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then we will have made a New World.
That is our destiny. To make it manifest—yes, our tactics and policies must be bolder. But the message matters: Our tactics must be an invitation, an irresistible call to experience solidarity across color and class. Our policy demands must be audacious because they disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.
In short, our generation’s rights movement—with an array of colors that Dr. King never would have envisioned, but set in motion by an immigration reform that he won—must make it our task to finally knit together a demos, one people, for this nation of many.
These remarks were originally delivered at Rights Now, an event held at the foundation on December 7, 2015. They were originally published by the Ford Foundation.