In the controversy following the Grand Jury’s decision to not bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, a pattern emerged, from social media feeds to the comment boards of actual media publications.
In the midst of all the back and forth arguments, one person would always take it upon themselves to speak about progress, and the immense gains we had made since the dawn of, if not humanity, then at least the Civil Rights movement.
Progress is an ambiguous term. It can mean anything from technical advancement to the movement of society towards equality (another term with a tricky definition). As it relates to Ferguson, I am referring to the latter definition.
Make no mistake: I do believe we are making progress. Things are more enlightened than they have ever been, here on the edge of history. Occasionally, it is fine to sit and reflect on the gains that we have made, and may serve as a vital balm against the inanities of day-to-day life.
Nevertheless, constant demand for the recognition of progress, especially in situations such as the aftermath of the Ferguson decision, are dangerous, breeding complacency at best, and encouraging inaction at worst.
First, complacency. Just because things are better now than before does not mean that issues of equality are closed. In other words, just because Dr. King had a dream does not mean that the nation was roused from its long nightmare of racism.
Further, the belief that these matters are closed ultimately trivializes the accomplishments of the men and women who agitated for progress, in that it reduces the price and often dreadful struggle of their unfinished work into a sound bite that’s half true at best.
The demand for recognition of progress creates a false impression that progress itself is immune to the inertia of society. In other words, we believe that because progress has been made, we are wholly incapable of ever making the same mistakes again.
You may have seen this complacency in the response to the jury’s decision. Though we can never truly know what happened that day in Ferguson, many of the responses to the decision made assumptions that stemmed from a belief that black and white Americans live an equal system, in which the problems of race and class do not exist any longer. This is not true, and is especially untrue, given the long and tragic history of the place, in Ferguson.
This leads into the serious problem of inaction. Progress is not something entirely out of the control of the individual, but it cannot exist without society either. It is not some force that just happens. Individuals agitate for change and society engages with that agitation to bring forth something new. In short, participation is the lifeblood of progress, and progress is in turn one of the driving forces of history.
The achievements of previous generations need you to build upon their legacy, to decide that those achievements, however amazing and worthwhile, were simply not enough for the society in which we live.
If you enjoy the progress we have made, a progress that you have probably not yet contributed to, then it is your responsibility to future generations to build progress that they will enjoy.
Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @junotbend.