This is a difficult moment in U.S. history. The pandemic, in addition to wreaking considerable death and economic suffering, has also revealed deep, stubborn, and persistent inequalities in American society. The majority of wealthier, more educated, and disproportionately white professionals have enjoyed the privilege of working from home and, generally speaking, of living in more sparsely populated residential neighborhoods thereby reducing their, and their families’, exposure to COVID-19. Conversely, low-wage workers labor disproportionately in frontline jobs in the public sphere (such as in nursing homes and grocery stores), are comprised disproportionately of women and people of color, have been hardest hit by job cuts, are less likely to have health insurance, and often live in more densely populated residential areas. Unsurprisingly, this has translated into significantly higher COVID-19 mortality rates for people of color.
This summer—following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers—the nation witnessed widespread protests over systemic racism within the criminal justice system and other institutions. This past week the nation experienced the tragic assault on the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to thwart the results of the election. In challenging times such as these, when the entire world seems to be continually unmoored, it is a basic human impulse to seek some consistency, some firm footing. Despite the daunting economic and social crises facing the nation, crises calling out for decisive action, it is tempting to “go slow.”
As we observe Martin Luther King Day, it may be instructive to turn to Dr. King for guidance on the ever-present temptation to “go slow.” Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was delivered on August 28, 1963, after a long summer of racial unrest across the U.S., a summer that witnessed the assassination of Medgar Evers and race-related violence in multiple American cities. King’s speech is justifiably famous for his improvised, “I have a dream” conclusion. At an earlier point in the speech however, King addresses the urgency of the historical moment, noting that, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Many, including the Kennedy administration, had argued against the gathering in Washington D.C., calling on civil rights leaders to “go slow,” warning that continued protests might only serve to alienate mainstream Americans from the civil rights cause—an illustration of precisely what King meant by the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Gradualism is seductive, it allows us to claim the mantle of virtue without risking too much. Yes, we want things to change, but let’s not rock the boat too much trying to get there. No need to upset people unnecessarily.
In contemporary parlance, we might equate gradualism with virtue signaling. With virtue signaling, the individual cares more about the appearance of virtue rather than whether justice is actually served. Donate to the right cause. Read the right book. Put the woke bumper sticker on your car. Say the politically enlightened thing. Gradualism banks on the simplistic proposition that, if we aggregate good and virtuous intentions, we wind up with a virtuous outcome. King warns us against precisely this, because the tranquilizing effect of gradualism stems from feeling good about ourselves. When we measure our success by whether we feel good about ourselves, we focus on the wrong thing and risk tranquilizing ourselves with self-satisfaction, thereby losing sight of the ultimate cause of justice.
In this moment of national crises, calls for gradualism abound. The protests against racism and police brutality are too confrontational. Some people are going to be turned off. Economic relief packages to those without jobs and facing eviction shouldn’t be too generous. People will not have any incentive to return to work.
If we are to heed this part of King’s message today, we should be prepared to critically interrogate calls for gradualism, however well-intended they may be. For, in King’s thinking, all such calls carry a potentially tranquilizing effect. They offer the quick comfort of “being reasonable,” “being on the right side,” or simply feeling good about ourselves, but they carry the danger of obscuring the larger cause of justice. Heeding King’s call also challenges us to imagine bolder alternatives to gradualism, irrespective of the boats that such alternatives may rock.