In 1974, a pair of scientists who would go on to win the Nobel Prize published a paper demonstrating that the chlorofluorocarbons used in aerosol sprays and refrigerators were harming the layer of ozone gas that prevents UV rays from penetrating Earth’s atmosphere. In 1985, as more researchers began to assess the implications of the report, an atmospheric scientist—who initially thought his instruments were malfunctioning—announced that he had discovered a hole in the ozone that covered much of Antarctica. Scientists rushed to make sense of the depletion, and terrifying stories circulated about antarctic sheep being blinded by UV radiation and humans facing unavoidable skin cancer. “It’s like AIDS from the sky,” one environmentalist later told Newsweek. Yet by 1987, dozens of countries had signed the Montreal Protocol, the world’s most successful environmental treaty to date, which limited the use of CFCs and averted catastrophe.
The ozone hole was not the totalizing threat posed by climate change, but it was a monumental challenge nonetheless—and through clear-sightedness and resolve, society was able to meet it in concert. The hole still returns to varying degrees each fall, but it no longer inspires existential dread. We have persevered.
Over the past year of protest and activism, I’ve thought about this rare, heartening instance of literal and figurative closure and wondered what a similar achievement might look like when it comes to our social fabric. How would we even know when we’ve made sufficient progress on ills so nebulous, omnipresent, and seemingly intractable as racism, sexism, and all the other facets of injustice now laid bare?
In 1961, James Baldwin could justifiably say that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time—and in one’s work.” He continued:
And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.
Sixty years later, Baldwin would have to acknowledge a very real shift in mainstream, respectable sensibility, even if society-wide progress has lagged behind. The indifference he condemned has been replaced with bristling vigilance about all manner of injustice, real or perceived, at least in the extremely online circles that set the discursive agenda. Glossy Establishment magazines from The New Yorker to Teen Vogue now routinely publish articles contemplating the abolition of the police. Yet the conviction that racism is perpetual maintains a stubborn grip. “Last year’s outcry, in all its dizzying complexity, marked an American rebellion of unusual scope and intensity,” Zak Cheney-Rice lamented in New York magazine around the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. “But one year later, even early signs of progress have begun to acquire a sour taste.”
Not only are today’s activists enraged, they bemoan a state of constant fatigue (and in some instances, post-traumatic stress disorder) caused merely by existing in the world as it is currently constructed. Even privileged white journalists write (whether earnestly or cynically) of their “exhaustion” at the stream of psychic and spiritual assaults caused by racism, as well as by sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, fatphobia, ableism, capitalism, and myriad other “systems of oppression.” They profess to be tired in part from performing “emotional labor.” The term was coined to describe jobs, many done mostly by women, that require projecting or suppressing a particular feeling, the way a waitress offers warmth. It has come to be a vague catchall for the exasperating burden of being enlightened in a biased society. Until we reach a state of perfect social harmony, they suggest, anyone who is not blind to or willfully complicit in injustice—whether they like it or not—will be unable to escape this ever-growing weight. Defeatism has become a badge of righteousness. If you’re not despondent, you’re not paying attention.
Surrounded by damaging assumptions and behavior, one is thus urged to “do the work” and be a force for positive change—to plant oneself firmly on the right side of history. And yet, for all intents and purposes, the work cannot be completed. The fight—not against tangible demons such as school segregation or stop-and-frisk or employment discrimination but for an ever more ineffable kind of social justice—acquires the eschatological complexity of the climate-change crisis in its most philosophical and even theological dimensions. It is for this reason that Ta-Nehisi Coates so memorably—and unexpectedly—concluded his memoir Between the World and Me on the dour note that white supremacy, and therefore all racial inequality, could only genuinely be dismantled by full-scale ecological destruction.
This apocalyptic framing thwarts debate and precludes taking satisfaction in hard-won social and institutional progress. The urgency of the ozone threat, and the sometimes overblown rhetoric it prompted, inspired action, not paralysis. We are a long way, rhetorically, from anything resembling King’s dream or even Obama’s hopeful audacity, visions whose power came from their acknowledgment, however cautious, of the possibility of progress. That optimism runs deep in the American grain—or at least it used to. The sociologist Talcott Parsons described what he called worldly instrumental activism—typified by a practical, rational urge to “master the situation”—as the hallmark of American politics, contrasting it with more utopian worldviews. As Noah Rothman argued in Commentary after the Derek Chauvin verdict, such an ethos is antithetical to pessimism. The playing field is understood to be level enough to leave one’s sense of agency intact, and the exercise of this agency, far from being exhausting, is viewed as a source of empowerment. Black Lives Matter rallies really have led to greater scrutiny of police practices; exposés of discriminatory housing policy have brought awareness to the baleful legacy of redlining. Yet, Rothman continued,
that ethos is a problem from the perspective of a particular sort of activist for whom invocations of “systemic racism” have become a catechism. The understanding that the system is malleable and reformable and that its conventions can and do produce just outcomes forces you to engage with it. By contrast, the belief that the system is irredeemably flawed demands little of you but fatalism, hopelessness, and resignation.
With a certain critical outlook, then, it has become all but impossible to take “yes” for an answer—to allow for the possibility that the ozone hole can be closed. “We can choose to be sated by more cops in jail, by the cathartic promise of trials and convictions and the suggestion that this system can self-regulate,” Cheney-Rice argued. “Or we can insist that bargaining for mere survival is not enough.” His reaction was typical. Immediately after Chauvin was convicted, Ibram X. Kendi, arguably the most prominent voice on race in America, appeared on CBS. “Is justice convicting a police officer, or is justice convicting America?” he intoned. “The problem is structural. The problem is historic. . . . Justice has convicted America. Now we must put in the time transforming this nation.” And yet the conviction of Derek Chauvin is a measure of justice. Not total justice; that does not exist. His individual punishment does not guarantee that abuses and gross violations of human dignity will never occur again. But it does signal that when they do occur, the system can hold the guilty party to account. It means that the system is not destined to be indifferent to or complicit in the justification of murder. The United States is not a perfect nation, but it has been powerfully altered since the days of Emmett Till, Rodney King, and even Eric Garner. Have we reached the summit? Not even close, and yet we would be deluded not to glance back from time to time to marvel at the plunging landscape.
Too many of us refuse to do that. It is not only that we are stuck, fixated on all that has yet to be perfected. It is that there is a certain intellectual and moral prestige in wallowing in our dissatisfaction: one may be depleted and set upon from all angles, but at least one is not corrupt or stupid. In this view, the system does not and cannot pretend to function, even—perhaps especially—when it is slowly, unceremoniously working. The real shame is that there is no space for the current and quotidian in such a dynamic, only the delayed and utopian. There is no patience for the undramatic, efficient, spiraling ascent of progress. “A minority that has agreed to believe that its life has been transformed for the better . . . is always anxious that it may have been tricked,” Leon Wieseltier observed. “It is easier to believe that the world does not change than to believe that the world changes slowly. But this is a false lucidity.” Not everything that adversely affects me is the product of my racial identity. Not everything that positively affects me is the result of my heteronormative masculine privilege. “A normal existence,” he continued, “is an existence with many causes.” What is powerful enough to deliver us from the incessant torment of being socially conscious is the daily business of living. The groceries have to be purchased and the floor has to be vacuumed. Imagine how exhausting it would be if the world really did require a total remaking in one stroke.
Toni Morrison, though hardly indifferent to the corrosive effects of racism, similarly warned against granting it too much power over our lives. “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,” she once remarked.
It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Morrison’s point was not that we should despair at unending injustice, but that we should ignore it as best we can and do the real work of living—our own work. Racism is a rigged game that one player can never win.
The Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière—who fled the dictatorship of “Baby Doc” Duvalier to work as a janitor in Montreal before becoming the second black member of the inner sanctum of French literary culture, the Académie Francaise—struck a similar note on a recent panel we participated in together on the subject of race, gender, and religion. How, the moderator asked, might we break out of those impermeable prisons of identity that the world thrusts us in? “Suppose the problem is resolved,” Laferrière responded. That is, act as if the solution were mapped out completely. What would it look like? This supposition tricks the mind into abandoning the realm of total uncertainty. Such was the advice a high school math teacher once gave Laferrière when he felt paralyzed, and it altered his perspective outside the classroom. Yet “suppose the problem is resolved,” he cautioned, is not the same as “the work is finished.” Quite the opposite. It marks only a point of departure, but one with a clear destination in view. However long it takes to get there, the journey must have an end.