Skip ‘progress’ in dialogue on race

Rudyard Kipling’s haughty exclamation that Americans “delude themselves into the belief that they talk English” rang in my ears when I arrived at Yale in August 2004, to begin my year as a Fox International Fellow. The Fox Fellowship is an academic program established in 1989 that brings students from several internationally acclaimed universities to Yale, allowing them to conduct research in their field of choice, and, if necessary, making their adjustment to the United States easier by offering such things as English conversation classes. After a few weeks sashaying my way around the campus, though, I was beginning to wonder whether I might need help conversing with the locals, too.

By mid-September, upon discovering that New Haven’s premiere martini purveyor shared its name with a vegetable of dubious pronunciation, it was quickly becoming apparent that this would be a year where I would not be able to forget differences in language. Where previously the cloistered splendor of my Cambridge college had allowed me to fool myself into thinking that the written work I produced as a student of modern American History was no different from that of American graduate students, by early October I was beginning to wonder how these very apparent differences in the use of language might affect my understanding of the American past. And there was one pattern of speech that especially caught in my throat.

Often with no prompting, over the course of the past year, people have been only too willing to offer me their view of American history. And each time I have been regaled by sweeping narratives of the American past, it has been through some variation of what could be called the “journey metaphor”: Look here, this is how far we’ve come; look there, this is how far we’ve still got to travel. All manner of things have been described in this way to me. Leafing through national publications, I have seen for myself everything from shifts in architecture and agriculture, to changes in aviation described under “how far we’ve come” headings. I began to wonder: Perhaps these journey metaphors provide a basic skeleton for thinking about social change in the United States?

Contrary to the belief that I came to Yale to play field hockey, I accepted the Fox Fellowship with the hope of furthering my interest in issues of race. And it is has been in the course of that research that I began to ponder what the consequences of these journey metaphors might actually be. Surely, I now think, when it comes to discussing changes in race relations, this metaphor is not up to the job it is being asked to do? Not only is it inadequate for describing the seriousness of the subject at hand, it is also inaccurate in conveying the complexity of such social transformations.

As a student of American History for a number of years now, I was aware before I came to Yale how I might use the English language differently than students elsewhere. On the 50th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a few months before I arrived in the U.S., I remember tuning in to CNN, and listening as President Bush explained that America’s “journey toward justice ha[d] not been easy, and it [was] not over.” I also remember how Bush’s words were echoed by others within the administration: “America has come a long way in 50 years, but we have a lot of work to do”. Bush-bashers ought not get too complacent here, though, for unlike Iraq, tax cuts and “moral values”, these patterns of speech are by no means the exclusive property of the political right. In December 2001, in my second year of undergraduate study, I remember Bill Clinton, ol’ blue eyes himself, give the Dimbleby Lecture in London. Speaking about racial injustices in the world, Clinton told his audience, “In my own country, we’ve come a long way since the days when African slaves and Native Americans could be terrorized or killed with impunity.”

Plebs and professors are just as likely to employ the metaphor as presidents. For me, one of the benefits of studying at Yale during ’04-’05 was the chance to listen to the great figures that graced the campus. It was at one of these talks, which took place in the Law Faculty in the fall of ’04, that I was able to hear John Lewis, the civil-rights luminary. It was an evening when journey metaphors hung heavy in the air. “We’ve come a distance, we’ve made some progress,” Lewis noted in seemingly every second sentence. “The dream of racial equality has come a long way from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, but it still has a long way to go before becoming a reality,” he wound up saying.

So what’s the problem here? The expression doesn’t appear to be all that harmful. It certainly appears to be a reasonably expansive figure of speech, allowing us to describe different speeds of change, problems (“roadblocks”), turning points (“crossroads”), as well as cautioning against complacency (“still some roads yet left to travel”). But all of this is too easy. Too easy, and too linear, too untrammeled, for explaining complex, contingent and conflicting changes. For with considerable hubris, what we are doing here is reducing diverse, contradictory views into one national viewpoint. All of this is much more wrong than any Hegelian Zeitgeist, though. For we are wrong to presume ourselves the sole navigators of our destinies. But, this expression is also too easy on those who have opposed greater inclusiveness. This metaphor ensures that the only detractors to improvements in race relations are the faceless elements of time, the fallible mechanisms of combustion. The civil rights movement thus becomes a movement no one ever opposes.

Journey metaphors are central in sustaining America’s vacuous conversation about issues of race. In “Race Matters,” Princeton scholar Cornell West talked about how insipid public discussions of race in America have become. Such debates, West said, fail “to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner.” Like the dresses that stretch precariously over the bodies of some Toads’ patrons, this pattern of speech allows society to hide a multitude of sins. So seductive has the patter of this metaphor become that only rarely are the problems that come from living in a racially divisive society interrogated. Seldom are new possibilities for discussing, and acting out, change imagined. After all, how we talk is indicative of how we think; how we remember the events of yesterday provides some template for how we might act tomorrow.

Andrew Fearnley is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Cambridge.