As an African American living in a supposedly post-racial America, I have grown accustomed to the following life cycle: injustice, grief and expected forgiveness. No matter how egregious the offenses against AfricanAmericans are, White America will only tolerate a brief period of grieving while they impatiently await our inevitable words of forgiveness, which will be broadcast in slightly varying forms on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. White America’s impatience and expectation of forgiveness are rooted in the idea that African Americans should be appreciative of how much better society is today than it once was.
There is nothing White Americans enjoy more than patting themselves on the back to celebrate how far America has come in race relations. I am not here to complain. In fact, I am grateful that I do not have to take an exam to exercise my right to vote; I am grateful that the N-word is no longer the name to which I must respond; and I am truly grateful that my literacy is no longer a crime punishable by death. Yes, when it comes to race relations, America is better than it was, but until better is synonymous with equality and justice, there is still a race problem.
It is not just White Americans – conservatives and liberals – who love spouting the self-congratulatory better philosophy. Too often, I hear Black leaders and pundits end their social analysis in a similar fashion. I have always wondered if this were done to avoid being dismissed as an angry Black person by the White masses or was it a way of paying homage to the sacrifices made by our ancestors. When analyzing the achievement gap, Black male incarceration rate or overly aggressive police enforcement of Black communities, I should never have to punctuate my acerbic critiques of these social ills with a “but things are better” so that my words will either be more palatable to White audiences or because I fear I am exhibiting a lack of reverence for those who fought, marched and died for me.
Using history as a reference point from which to learn and grow is an integral part of societal transformation, but living in a constant state of comparison to the past stifles discourse and impedes progress. Instead of viewing society through a critical lens in an effort to continually improve our nation, we become content with change occurring in the most minimal of increments. There were a number of older African Americans who did not support Dr. King because they believed his efforts would make the racial atmosphere worse. From their perspective, the conditions for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were much better than they were in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
A significant part of our American inheritance is a legacy of racial inequality. And even though the system of Black Codes was better than slavery; Jim Crow was better than Black Codes; and post-racial America is better than Jim Crow, I realize that each and every breath African Americans take in this nation could be our last. Until that reality changes, better is not good enough.