The Arc of the Moral Universe?

On April 21, police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina executed Andrew Brown. According to a private autopsy, he was shot five times, including the “kill shot” to the back of his head whil;e his hands were on the steering wheel of his car. Seven officers equipped with body cameras were at the scene but only a 20-second snippet was provided to the family. Based on what we know so far, the official story has zero credibility.

This unfolding story, along with many others, prompts me to once again pause and think about the metaphor, “The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But Bends Toward Justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently employed the above phrase as did Barack Obama. King was paraphrasing a portion of a sermon delivered by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who said in 1853 “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. … a long one. My eye reacts but little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Given this context, I think we can read the longer statement as more nuanced, more equivocal than the abbreviated more popular version. And here it’s worth remembering that Rev. Parker was a Transcendentalist who believed there was a natural morality in the universe that would eventually triumph. Because slavery was such a terrible evil, that would happen sooner rather than later and, if necessary, God himself, would intervene.

King’s version, with its historical determinism and preordained justice undoubtedly provides comfort to many people, including those harboring the belief in American exceptionalism, that we are on an odyssey of continual progress. Barack Obama liked King’s version so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. Cynically, I suspect he did so because looking at it allowed him to abdicate responsibility for doing anything.

However, the unrelenting trajectory of racial animus and white supremacy, going back 250 years, suggests the statement is magical thinking and even dangerously naive. And to those lacking the certainty of religious belief, it’s even more problematic.

I want to think it’s possible that white people can be anti-racist, that racism is not an unchangeable character deficiency, that Americans can divest themselves of white supremacy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I want to take issue with the Afro pessimistic claim that most white people (not only cops) see Blacks as not fully human subjects. I want to believe that UC-Irvine Prof. Frank Wilderson errors in positing a structure of anti-Black violence in this country that lies under the surface of leftist dreams of a universal humanity and intersectional solidarity.

I want to dismiss out of hand that whites are incapable of seeing that this country was built on genocide, stolen land, violence and Black slave labor. And along with activist Bette Lee, I want to think it’s possible that white Americans will eventually agree that “Only an honest reckoning with its history of settler colonialism and its toxic legacy of systemic racism, white supremacy and grinding poverty will lead to real social change and the transformation of America to where justice can prevail.” I want to think it’s possible that whites will grasp that this responsibility is entirely on us.

To this last point, the editors at Black Agenda report (April 21, 2021) remind us that “Black people cannot change white people’s warped perception of the world, although, Lord know, we’ve tried.” As such, housing and school segregation are more entrenched than ever; incarceration functions as a “Black-erasure machine;” White people continue to believe they are the “primary victims of racial discrimination;” and white supremacy is “impervious to any legal recourse.”

I think it’s important to see things as they really are before proceeding to respond. And that means that it will take more than reforms because, as the saying goes, “culture eats policy.” And that begs questions about the origins of our culture and who benefits from it?

Finally, given all of the above, there are days when it feels like our legacy of ghettoization, marginalization, the entire criminal justice system, mass incarceration, warrior cops, massive structural violence and rest means that pessimism and feelings of hopelessness can’t be dismissed. It remains an open question whether most white people are committed to lending their weight toward bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. That said, in the spirit of Gramci’s pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, I’ll conclude with a quote from Edward Said: “Where cruelty and injustice are involved, hopelessness is submission, which I believe is immoral.” For me, assuming this responsibility is tantamount to saving our secular souls.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.