I was talking to a friend the other day about racism. He is pessimistic and discouraged. He understands now how deeply embedded racism is in our culture and how difficult it will be to root it out. He said it won’t happen in our lifetime. He gave me the impression that he fears it will take hundreds of years to cleanse our culture of white supremacist beliefs and behaviors. He said it’s been 150 years since we eliminated slavery in this country, and we have made very little progress since then.
I have my bleaker moments when I share his pessimism, but I think it’s easy to miss a bigger, better picture. So, to cheer myself up, I decided to talk about why positive change will happen in the United States faster than we might think.
It’s important to be clear that America needs beliefs to change and behaviors to change, and those are two very different things. What white Americans believe, what’s embedded in our culture, is firmly planted in us and will be difficult to change quickly. Culture is a powerful thing, and there is no way that all of us can instantly unlearn what we’ve learned over our lifetimes. We often can’t even recognize those beliefs within us, so changing them will be difficult.
Behaviors, on the other hand, can be changed quickly. In the 1950s and 1960s, we thought nothing of throwing our McDonald’s soda cups and hamburger wrappers out the car window. Two decades later, we’d pretty much stopped littering. We’ve seen that, with appropriate leadership, large portions of the population will wear masks and socially distance.
Racism won’t be gone until we change beliefs, but we can change behaviors more quickly. As behaviors change, beliefs will follow. America can do this, and here are some reasons why I think it can happen sooner rather than later.
1. Let’s start with the 150-years-since-the-Civil-War thing. It isn’t true that we have made little progress since then. We’ve made a lot of progress. We got rid of slavery, first with the Thirteenth Amendment and then gradually by eliminating Jim Crow, sharecropping, and horribly discriminatory employment practices in the North. We enacted plenty of laws to level the playing field for Blacks. We haven’t made nearly enough progress against racism, but let’s not ignore the significant progress that has been made.
More important, however, is the fact that there’s a very real difference between slavery and racism. The country’s been racist for 400 years, and when the country ended slavery, there was no intention to eliminate racism. Whites fully intended to keep the races separate and to continue to subject Blacks to white domination. We didn’t begin working on the problem 150 years ago – we just ended slavery and failed to recognize racism and white supremacy as the real problem Even at the time of the Civil Rights movement, white people didn’t understand that our cultural habit of racism was the problem. White people thought that passing the Civil Rights laws in the 1960s would solve the problem. There was little recognition that racism and white supremacy were deeply embedded cultural problems, and in the 1960s we barely began to attack them.
Thus, the country hasn’t been working to correct racism for 150 years. It hasn’t even been working to correct it for 60 years. It may be that now, for the first time, white Americans are beginning to understand the problem and now, for the first time, white America may be motivated to work on the problem. The last 150 years are not indicative of how quickly we can change – we weren’t trying to change.
2. We all know that the pace of change of all kinds in the world has increased dramatically since World War II, and we’d be foolish to think the pace of social change is not accelerating, also. Social change isn’t easy, and rapid social change is wrenching. Still, it’s happening around us, year after year, and it will continue.
3. Ethnic, religious, and racial hatred, resilient though it may be, is breaking down more quickly than ever before. Social integration of all kinds is occurring throughout the modern world, integration that was inconceivable as little as 100 years ago. That integration, like everything else in the modern world, is likely to accelerate. (I know that integration isn’t happening very quickly across large sections of the U.S., but that’s because rural America always lags when it comes to change. The large population masses along the east and west coasts are integrating now, and the trend will find its way to rural America over time.)
There is, for example, substantial intermarriage going on. Mixed ethnic marriages have been happening in this country for a century, and the pace of mixed-religious and mixed-race marriages has accelerated dramatically in the past several decades. The Montagues and Capulets foreshadowed a world where once mortal enemies of all kinds are intermarrying. The international community of scholars is bringing us together. International commerce certainly has broken down substantial barriers. Whites and people of color are dealing with one another all over the world. Something like 45% or 50% of the population of Toronto is Asian. Inter-mixing is well under way, and it will continue.
4. The younger generation, the children and grandchildren of the boomers, are further along in their thinking on these issues than their parents and grandparents. Gen X and Gen Y and the millennials may still be racist – after all, the boomers raised them and the boomers shared their racism with them, but they’ve gone to more integrated schools, had more enlightened teachers, and enjoyed increased social interaction across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. They aren’t perfect, but they have a pretty big head start on the boomers. And it isn’t just young whites who have a new and better perspective on race in America. The progress America has made in improving and integrating schools has grown a new generation of American Blacks, young men and women who are assuming all sorts of roles in American business and culture that simply weren’t available to their parents. Can you say “Amanda Gorman”?
5. The school systems, not everywhere, but in plenty of places, are actively developing curriculum to educate children about racism and white supremacy. In some places it will be dynamic, in others it may be more watered-down, but it will have impact.
6. Enlightened leadership in corporate America, led by men and women of all races, will make a big difference. There are a lot of women in senior positions in corporate America, and a fair number of Blacks, and their numbers are increasing. Whether white men like to admit it or not, women and people of color tend to understand issues like racism better, if for no other reason than they themselves have been the objects of discrimination throughout their lives. Women and Blacks are already having a significant impact on corporate decision making in the social justice realm, and their influence and impact will continue to grow. The result will be more substantial social justice leadership from corporate America than we’ve seen before, both within the American workplace and among American consumers.
Lately, people have enjoyed beating up on Facebook and Google and the other corporate giants who lead the digital revolution, and those companies do have their flaws, but they are populated (both in the corporate rank and file and in the boardroom) by people with a modern social conscience. That means modern corporate leadership in America most likely will take on a newer, more aggressive role on social justice issues than, for example, the big three automakers were willing to assume in the 50s and 60s.
One simple example of the impact of corporate decision making has been the dramatic change that has occurred in television advertising. TV ads now are populated by individuals and families of all colors. Gay and lesbian couples, interracial couples, people with physical challenges. Television viewers across the country are being bombarded with images of modern life that teach us that all people belong in the picture.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism over the next few decades. Yes, I also can list a whole variety of factors that could impede or even stop that progress. That’s why I’m not making any promises, but everything in the world is changing faster than ever before. We just have to commit ourselves to cultural change. Some people may be brought along kicking and screaming, but they’ll come along, too. That’s how change always works,