Pragmatism

Awareness of Incrementalism and Activism

People tend to either overestimate and underestimate the amount of change that will come from the current crisis in racism. For example, conservatives are likely to say that Black Lives Matter won't accomplish anything except make whites hate blacks more. And liberals are likely to say that the movement is the most crucial civil rights flash point of our generation, akin to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, i.e., one that will not necessarily bring an end to racism but will provide some significant, sweeping relief. Both viewpoints are incorrect. These civil rights battles are incremental, like the peeling of an onion. Black Lives Matter will, for example, not lead to much more than the de-militarization of neighborhoods that are predominantly filled with people of color. It will be an important victory, but before the winners have had a chance to catch their breath, a new pain will arrive.

The next crisis will be the prevalence of white spaces, also known as tacit segregation. A recent example is when a Starbucks employee called the police on some black customers who asked to use the restroom. After a few scandals like this, a new kind of movement will emerge, one that will involve sit-ins or en masse invasions of white spaces. The new action will become a 21st-century version of the Freedom Riders. These flash mob civil right protests will follow the same cycle as Black Lives Matter. White fear will be stoked. Progressives will be galvanized. The issue will then become a hot political talking point, with major characters emerging on both sides. And for a moment, tacit segregation will be the defining movement of the times. After the movement succeeds, though, all that will happen is that black people will feel a little bit more comfortable shopping in formerly whites-only establishments.

And on this pattern will go. The removal of each sliver of racism will reveal another one, each step bringing an all-consuming conflagration, followed by victory and its attendant triumphalism. But in the bigger context, it will take the removal of something on the order of fifty incremental slivers to finally defeat racism in America. The question then is, should the players be informed about how small their struggle is in context of the greater one; or, is it more useful to focus on the current hot-button issue, pushing with all our might, hoping for the best, and not worrying about what comes next?