Something I’ve been thinking about lately — and which Martin Luther King Jr. Day has helped bring into focus — is my own tendency towards status-quo bias. This is the tendency to accept things as — if not exactly good — inevitable and unavoidable just because they exist now.
Dr. King was one of the most eloquently powerful critics of this bias, famously declaring from a Birmingham jail cell that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” He knew all too well that too many so-called white moderates were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”: that even while many white citizens (some in the White House) might nominally declare their support for equal civil rights, they weren’t all that fussed about how or when those rights would come.
Dr. King knew that Bull Connor, the brutal Birmingham sheriff willing to employ all sorts of violence in order to enforce segregation, was ultimately less of a threat to civil rights than the soft-spoken, gentlemanly states-rights proponent Georgia Senator Richard Russell — or the Northern senators who would willingly trade progress on civil rights for action on other priorities, content to defer justice until some unspecified later date.
It’s a point so often made that it’s become almost trite, but I still find it hard to grasp. There was nothing inevitable about the Civil Rights Movement. Progress was the result not of a historical trend, but of individuals’ conscious and provocative challenges to a morally bankrupt status quo. Indeed, more powerful than any trend toward justice, the trend towards perpetuating the present is what made Jim Crow last so long.
Now, not all causes demand the same degree of radical urgency as others. I get frustrated when my peers lament our lack of our parents’ proclivity for protest, as if their generation possessed a moral vigor that they somehow failed to transmit to their children. The fact is that they had a very specific reason to protest: fear of being drafted and sent halfway around the world to die in an unjust war. Indeed, their apathy toward current problems — we don’t see many baby boomers taking to the streets to rally for employment and gay rights — suggests that the problems that they (and we) currently face are less severe and proximate than those of the 1960s.
But that very lack of proximity may serve to deaden us to very real problems that do exist. For the entirety of my class’ college tenure — and for a good part of high school too — the employment picture in the United States has been abysmal. But the political will to fight unemployment has gotten steadily weaker, in part, I think, because the economy isn’t so bad for business and policy elites who have seen their stock portfolios recover. Nor is it for their children at elite universities like Yale who still have a high chance of landing a lucrative job.
I (and many others) have advocated in these pages for increased Yale outreach to disadvantaged communities, as well as for other steps — a larger student body, for instance — that might make a Yale education more broadly accessible. But in totality, such proposals are mainly window dressing; they aim to help a few students rather than change the landscape. Indeed, I’ve never questioned the status quo that most Yale students would come from a relatively well-off, highly educated subset of the population. That seemed like the inevitable by-product of a society where family resources and early educational opportunities for children remain so unequal.
Maybe it is. Certainly, Yale would help no one by admitting students who totally lack the preparation to succeed here — and that preparation might inevitably, if only partially, stratify along socioeconomic lines. Still, has anyone actually done the legwork to know whether a truly muscular economic affirmative action shift — one that would mean only one percent of Yale students come from the top one percent of America — would result in classes unprepared to succeed here?
This column is not meant as a holier-than-thou exercise in vague indictments of the status quo. God knows I’ve been happy to benefit from the thousands of advantages life has thrown my way, and I don’t believe that every instance of uneven privilege and want has or necessarily deserves a solution. Still, it’s worth taking some time every now and then to consider “the way things are” — whether at Yale, within America, or, perhaps most importantly in the 21st century, around the world. They might not have to be that way.
Harry Larson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.