Credit for Progress

I’m reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie right now. It fit my recent reading interests and is getting all kinds of buzz, so I decided to give it a try. It’s deserving of the praise and I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’m done. For now, I just want to highlight one passage that describes a blogger and public speaker:

During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.

There’s something true in that last sentiment, but also something troubling. I wonder if it gets at the distinction between reformers and radicals. The reform mentality relies on progress to continually bolster the effort: “Yes, we haven’t fixed everything yet, but at least we’re making progress. Look at the positive steps we’ve made just recently. Individuals can make a difference!” Radicals, on the other hand, point to incremental changes as a sign of non-progress: “Even with these small changes, the underlying problems still exist. Rather than patting ourselves on the back we need to redouble our effort to end this system once and for all!”

Whatever your perspective on the best approach to change, the author has a point about the wrongness of racism and the wrongness of self-congratulations on the matter. Fixing the nation’s original sin is essential, and we can’t do so if we lose sight of either it’s abhorrence or its centrality in our nation’s history.

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