Perhaps this is our moment
Have you ever thought about who would you have been if you had been born in a different time? Would you have been the same you: same values, same character, same moral judgments? Or would you have been someone different? And if you were different, would you have been someone unrecognizable, even unadmirable, to your present self?
I do this thought experiment from time to time, typically going back to key moments in our nation’s moral history to imagine who I would have been in those moments:
The Abolitionist Movement: As someone from Virginia, would I have had the conviction and courage to work to bring about the end of slavery?
Women’s Suffrage: As a man, would I have had sufficient confidence, humility, and vision to stand for women’s rights and equality?
The Civil Rights Movement: As a white person, would I have sought to address the deep racial injustices and inequities that animated the civil rights movement? Would Dr. King’s moral clarity and stirring rhetoric have inspired me to action then like they do today?
It is very tempting to answer these questions in the affirmative. Yet, I wonder.
Sometimes, I even wonder if I would have had the ability to perceive the injustices that now seem so clear in the light of history.
This question grows when I am confronted with the information that in 1963 a Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of white Americans believed that black Americans were treated equally when it came to housing, education, and employment. I wonder: could I have been iconoclastic enough to disagree with two-thirds of my white peers in 1963?
We’ll never know.
Or will we?
Just the other day, the Pew Research Center published a poll that shows that in 2016 large majorities of white Americans fail to see racial injustice and inequity as major issues in our culture and communities.
The survey also shows that, much like in 1963, great disparities persist in the way black and white Americans view issues of racial justice and equity in our communities.
What to make of these very different perspectives?
On one hand, I could take comfort in the fact that a lot of people like me think that issues of racial justice and equity are not a major problem. Cold comfort that is.
Alternatively, I am forced to engage with a tougher question: Is it possible that racial injustice and inequity persist in our culture and in our communities precisely because many of us are unwilling or unable to see it?
We cannot solve a problem that we don’t think is there.
We cannot root out an evil that we don’t even acknowledge.
Which brings me back to the thought experiment.
A common feature of those moments in our nation’s moral history is that there were people who had the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom of their time. They advanced an alternative vision of the future based on a radically different social order.
The abolition of slavery.
Full enfranchisement of women as democratic citizens.
Civil rights for all men and women.
And that vision was ultimately vindicated by history.
Perhaps this is our moment.
What would it look like if we challenged the conventional wisdom about racial justice? What would we be capable of? What future could we bring about?