A summary of America’s 2023 racial-justice developments might read like this:
– Hate crime increased.
– Topics related to racism were censored out of K-12 and college classrooms.
– Politicians attacked corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
– Federal courts and state governments struck down or crippled long-time programs that support disadvantaged individuals and businesses.
– CEO’s who once decried racial transgressions turned mum.
No wonder a client lamented that the United States is hopelessly racist and heading toward institutionalized injustice (again). I have hopeful news for her and others distraught by the above developments.
On its way out of Hickman, Kentucky, the Mississippi river flows northwest. If we made inferences from viewing that stretch, we’d conclude it was headed to Oregon. To understand that the forces driving the Mississippi toward Louisiana will prevail, no matter what we’re witnessing, requires stepping back and considering all the forces impacting its trajectory. In America’s racial-justice journey, we’re currently in Hickman. All we see is the regression taking place in front of our distraough eyes and dropped jaws.
But there’s more than meets the eye. This moment in history carries the momentum of President Lincoln signing the Final Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Park refusing to cede her seat, John Lewis and other students taking punches at segregated lunch counters, Martin Luther King sharing his dream, Barack Obama rising to the presidency, millions demonstrating against the police killing of a Black American and countless other courageous acts. As a result, the cause of racial justice is now propelled by America’s most powerful engine for change: public opinion. Research by Gallup and The Pew Charitable Trust finds that most Americans today — including most White Americans — believe that being White confers an advantage, greater diversity is good for the country and that race and racism should be taught in schools. When it comes to DEI in the workplace, a mere 16% of Americans — and only 21% of White Americans — oppose it. If racism is racking up successes, it’s despite majority opinions, not because of them.
What’s more, the pro-racial-justice majority will continue to grow. Every year, 4 million 18-years-olds replace the 2.5 million adults 65 and older who die. Incoming adults are more oriented toward racial justice than their predecessors by 20 or more percentage points per most indicators (see, for example, this and this research). Racial justice also gains support from many adults adopting more inclusive attitudes. For example, within one year there was a 10% increase (from 35% in 2021 to 45% in 2022) in the number of Americans who favor Juneteenth being a Federal holiday.
In sum, the racial-justice backslide perpetuated by the old guard and hateful holdouts is as unsustainable as a north-flowing Mississippi. Harvard’s evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker performed a systematic review of the longitudinal data on social justice. He concluded that we’re not witnessing the reversal of a century-long movement toward equal rights, but rather the mobilization of an aggrieved and shrinking demographic.
Racial injustice remains a grave issue, but Americans are not hopelessly racist and we won’t tolerate reverting back to a country of institutionalized injustice. We do, however, need to take the helm from the minority foiling progress and resume our long-arcing path to an equitable society.