The Moral Hazard of American Gradualism: A Lesson from the March on Washington

August 26, 2013
Guest Post

by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represented the high point of the decades-long civil rights movement against Jim Crow apartheid. The March brought heightened international attention to African Americans’ demands for social, political, and economic justice.  And the March offered a snapshot of the battle to awaken the moral imagination of the country. Indeed, the progress achieved in the 1960s battle for civil, political, and economic rights could not have been made without first winning the battle for the moral imagination of the United States. 

The movement made apparent the injustices of Jim Crow. The movement called white America’s attention to the terrorism of lynching and bombings. The movement forced Americans to consider the effects of segregated facilities. The movement demanded equal participation for African Americans in the political process. The “I Have A Dream” speech spoke for many in the movement by setting out specifically the moral question of civil rights for African Americans to the country.

Dr. King sought not just to evoke the question, but also to show the necessity of answering the question immediately. He said that “[w]e . . . come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”  Yet, the question we must confront in 2013 is whether we have been tranquilized into the lethargy of gradualism concerning the work that needs to be done. 

Fifty years ago, because of the public shaming of nonviolent protest, the majority society of 1963 could no longer ignore the tyranny of American apartheid. As a result, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  We can rightfully rejoice in the fact that America today cannot be called an “apartheid” country. But the majority society of 2013 seems to have forsaken the Civil Rights Movement’s call to moral imagination. Instead, many in society seem to have fallen victim to a new kind of gradualism.

The gradualism of which I speak is not unlike the gradualism of which Dr. King spoke. He feared inaction and apathy towards Jim Crow apartheid as the means for racial injustice to continue. Today, the gradualism comes from the misplaced notion that because formal American apartheid has ended, America has progressed sufficiently. Many who hold this view simply believe the racial progress we have is enough.  And some who hold this gradualist position believe that race conscious legislation actually is an affront to the “color blindness” they believe is required of government. They would dial back race conscious legislation and would rely on formal equality (rather than substantive justice) as sufficient to address any lingering concerns. This is the new American gradualism – retrogressive action under the cover of apathy, spurred by the myth of post-racialism and the supposed fear of constitutional overreach.

In its most recent term, the Supreme Court followed this gradualist approach. In the name of gradualism and mythical racial progress, the Court in Shelby County, AL v. Holder dealt a crippling blow to the Voting Rights Act. The Court held off on dismantling racial affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas, but I believe that it is only a matter of time before it is struck down in the name of race neutrality and constitutional overreach. 

This gradualism, however, is not isolated to the shifting sands of constitutional jurisprudence. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his slayer, George Zimmerman, evoke again the old human rights question of why a black boy’s life can be taken with impunity by a white man. And the ongoing debate about immigration reform raises the question of what it means to be a worker and a citizen in this country and whether an undocumented Hispanic worker’s life is of value. The same class and race barriers that dominated our common community fifty years ago have reemerged in a refreshed guise, and these barriers are once again defended in the name of gradualism.

We must stand against this twenty-first century American gradualism, and its accompanying moral hazard of insisting on the comfortable position of glacial change. Such gradualism is only retrenchment, and Dr. King knew this. The first step in this fight is to recapture the American moral imagination. Before we can finish the battle for civil and political rights and “make real the promises of democracy,” we must first rearticulate our vision of political and social equality. The America of 2013 must recognize that the promises have not been kept. We must re-evoke this vision of equality to stir our hearts and motivate us to action – legal, political, and social.  

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher asked me to memorize the “Dream” section of Dr. King’s 1963 speech. I had inherited the gift of rhetoric from my Methodist preacher father, so I took the opportunity. Eventually, I presented what came to be called “The Dream” to my entire school. From that day in the winter of 1988 until I graduated from high school, I had a side job as an MLK reenactor, and it was an honor. What that experience taught me is that for the dream to flourish, it must be rearticulated regularly, it must stir our souls, and most importantly the rearticulating must awaken our collective moral compass. 

This rearticulating of our vision of political and social equality – and the work to make it law – is what is necessary now, during this time of commemoration, and for all the times to come thereafter. To fail to do so is to allow “The Dream,” and indeed, the American dream, to remain that – a dream, and, for the least of us in our society, a nightmare of inequality.

[image via Rachael Hancock]