Mar 22, 2023
"Our progress has been part of the living history of America," President Jimmy Carter declared in a 1979 speech. "America is a nation of progress, of moving forward," Senator Chuck Grassley stated in 2022 on the Senate floor. "The story of America is a story of progress and resilience, of always moving forward, of never, ever giving up. It's a story unique among all nations," President Joe Biden announced in his 2023 State of the Union.
For decades - even centuries - policymakers, and media on their behalf, have employed some variation on the same rhetorical theme: the United States is a nation of progress, especially so-called "racial progress." Though our Great Experiment has been imperfect, we're told, it's constantly improving, steadily and automatically forging ahead toward its ideal state. Yes, we've been home to the violent oppression of untold sums of people, but look how far we’ve come!
There have objectively been political gains for all groups historically and currently denied basic rights in the U.S. This is obvious. But the trajectory is far from linear, raising the question: How far have "we" really come? Are people, especially Black, Latino, and Native people, less likely to suffer through poverty than any time before now? Are police and prisons any less violent? To what extent have U.S. law and policymaking really evolved?
On this episode, we dissect the liberal assertion that social, particularly racial, progress in the U.S. is inevitable, that there's this comforting "arc" of history bending towards justice. We examine how this idea came to be, who gets to define the metrics of "progress," and why it's dangerous to advance the tidy Vaseline-lens narrative that societal improvement is part of some preordained future.
Our guest is Dr. Julian M. Rucker.