Without Struggle, No Progress

People often ask me if I believe in “progress.”  By that, they usually mean, do I think there’s been “progress” in the way this country deals with racism.  I usually answer by saying, “I believe in struggle,”  paraphrasing Frederick Douglass’ famous quote:  “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.”   There was some good news in the struggle toward racial justice today.   Here’s a brief recap:

  • The House passed legislation reducing the two-decades-old sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Senate passed an identical bill in March and the legislation is now heading to President Obama, who supports the reform effort (h/t Drug Policy Alliance via Julie Netherland).  This is good news in the struggle for racial inequality because sentencing for powder cocaine, disproportionately used by whites, has traditionally had much lighter sentences than for crack cocaine, more often used by African Americans.  These unjust sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan.

(Image from here.)

  • A federal judge blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona’s immigration enforcement law from going into effect.  Judge Susan Bolton took aim at the parts Arizona’s draconian immigration law that have generated the most controversy, and issued a preliminary injunction against sections that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times.   This is good news in the struggle for racial equality because it means that Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in Arizona may be able to live their lives without being harassed.

These changes are good news and evidence that struggle can create progress, but make no mistake – these are small changes.    And, these small changes that took large numbers of people, several agencies and non-profit organizations, and legislators to create.

There still remains a lot of work to be done around drug policy and around immigration reform.   Drug laws are perhaps the centerpiece in the racial caste system of that is the U.S. criminal justice system.   Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio says that he will arrest any one protesting the immigration law there.

If and when big change comes in these arenas, it will be because people worked and struggled to make change, not because there is some inevitable, progressive trend toward racial equality.