The myth of “progress” helps to obscure the truth—we are still marching for civil rights
The stakes have not changed, because the stakes are and always have been Black lives.
“What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost 60 years ago. I’m not gonna live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and my sister’s time. My nieces and my nephews time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
— James Baldwin
It’s my belief that Black people have a fundamentally different relationship with time than our oppressors do, and that difference creates an opportunity for a Progress Narrative to take hold, especially among liberals. There persists this idea that real progress has been made and that progress is always happening. That it must be, because time is always passing.
But this is a fallacy, and it keeps a lot of people from truly understanding white supremacy, how it operates, and how it continues to show up in our lives every day—often in the very same ways that it did for our ancestors. It ensures that these harms are ignored and often even become intentionally difficult to recognize and name.
The Progress Narrative is dangerous because it breeds apologia for and normalization of anti-Blackness of the Past while propagating the myth that such an extreme level of anti-Blackness does not exist in the Present. It’s why people continue to be “shocked” at blatant acts of racism.
Much of that “shock” is, of course, feigned. Still, it plays directly into the lie that any significant progress has been made concerning the American tradition of racism, and many knowingly take advantage of that for performative shock and outrage. This directly contributes to and furthers the lie of racial progress, because racial progress must be the accepted truth in order for their shock and outrage to be understood as real and legitimate.
The Progress Narrative demands the mythology of Post-racialism and Post-colonialsim; both of these ugly forces are still alive and hard at work. Subscribing to the allure of the false narrative means to reject the reality of the Present.
Accepting the idea that real progress has been made puts distance between the Present and the kind of racism that they see as only being in the Past—a more extreme, more overt kind of racism. It obscures racism of the Present as something that only shows up as individual words and actions, rather than a force embraced and deployed by entire institutions and by people working in our social systems.
There seems to be this pervasive delusion that chattel slavery, the Jim Crow Era, and the Civil Rights Movement are somehow disconnected from the time we are currently in. Time somehow broke itself into fractions and clearly demarcated each segment. Time carved out space between them and left the gaps unattended, save for implanting doubt and disbelief.
Not only do Black people live in a different reality and a different America from white people, we also appear to live in a different timeline. Our relationship to time is one where the historical thread is an uninterrupted one that can be easily identified and traced. The timeline from the first slave ships to now is evident and unmistakable, clear and definite. For us.
At every point, in every era, white people have always denied what they’ve done and what they continue to do. That denial has always been normalized and encouraged by the state, demonstrated by those holding the highest office and facilitated through the education system. Indoctrination into white supremacy is marked by it.
I often write against white supremacy’s investment in reframing historical narratives, particularly with white revision and appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Violence is not the answer” is a lie that covers up and dilutes the truth of the violence and unrest of past rebellions carried out by fed-up Black people under siege.
The truth is that any form of protest against white supremacy, will be seen as too rash, as “protesting the wrong way.” No protest will ever be considered “peaceful” because what they want is for us to not protest at all. In any era. White folks are quick to talk about how MLK was nonviolent, but never talk about the fact that he was murdered by the state anyway.
We have to sever “time” from “progress” in our heads because their lack of separation only hinders our ability to tell the whole truth. The calendar is irrelevant. The current year is of very little consequence, just as it was when our parents and grandparents were marching or when our ancestors were rebelling.
It’s not 1968 all over again. We are not moving backwards. White supremacy is a fully and presently entrenched facet of our daily lives. There is no need to ponder on what you would have done 60 or 100 years ago. No need to speculate on how you would have responded to uprisings in the 1700s or 1800s.
It’s all the same shit. It never fucking stopped. Remember that the historical thread is a continuous one. The stakes have not changed, because the stakes are and always have been Black lives.
Where we are positioned in time is no indication of how much progress has been or should have been made, no indication of what white people’s moral conscience should be. They should never have stolen, dehumanized, enslaved, and disenfranchised Black people in the first place, nor set up systems to keep us further subjugated following chattel slavery.
Progress—meaning the dismantling of white supremacist structures—should happen irrespective of time and it doesn’t serve us to use time as a gauge for when we should finally be regarded as fully human. White people don’t give a shit what year it is; their intent is to preserve systems of whiteness forever.
And the work is steadily being done, has been for centuries. Since the Black Panthers organized and drew the ire of the FBI for feeding Black youth free breakfast, since Ida B. Wells stood up against lynchings, since Harriet Tubman smuggled her kin from plantations, since slaves rebelled and killed their masters.
Black folks of the very recent Past—so recent that many of them are still here to tell the stories—marched and protested and rioted and dissented in the same ways that we are now. They did so in the face of militant police lines, batons, dogs, and hoses, because their hope was that none of us would have to do the same. And the generations before them protested against the same violences, with the same hope that their descendants would never have to.
The revisionism of white supremacy goes beyond telling lies about how racism and anti-Blackness have deeply informed the way this entire nation has been created and sustained. It’s so pervasive and cunning that it has managed to distort people’s very perception of time itself. Time passed never has been and never will be any indication of racial progress. Ain’t shit changed but the date on the calendar.