The racism and violence in today’s world can be horrifying. So it’s important to look at the wider scope of history. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Perhaps many of us are disturbed by the racist words and actions today because they’re in such sharp contrast to the celebration of diversity that dominates our society. We need to remember, however, that not long ago most people thought inclusion was a threatening and radical idea. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan flourished throughout much of North America, committing acts of violence against people of colour, Catholics, immigrants and civil rights activists, among others.
But the realization that love is more powerful than fear brought about a widespread shift in thinking. World history shows this discovery made time and again – the arc of the moral universe bending further and further toward justice. Those who try to resist are left behind or, worse, become the villains.
Throughout recorded history, certain groups have sought to dominate others. Slavery, for example, was seen as normal, and the continent of Africa was changed forever by the trade of human beings. It took hundreds of years for the truth of this horror to have enough impact on the social conscience of people in Europe and North America to change laws. Ending slavery, however, was only one step in the bend toward justice.
Colonialism dominated the world for hundreds of years. Forcing European culture upon others was seen as the white man’s burden.
The 20th century saw the rise of systematic mass killings, some of which continue to be denied by their perpetrators.
Today, even so-called advanced societies still discriminate against individuals and groups.
But history is also filled with people who had the courage to speak the truth. Their words resonated in the hearts and minds of those who heard them, because there’s something good inside each of us that embraces the dignity of humanity. Indeed, when we’re able to see beyond the lies of hatred and segregation, we see the power of diversity.
Teaching young people history helps demonstrate how far we’ve come.
When being taught about the Holocaust, a student remarked, “The Christians didn’t like the Jews, right? But Jesus was a Jew. So how does that make sense?”
In discussing racial integration in athletics, another student asked, “Why would race even matter? Isn’t the intention to have the best team possible?”
We’re coming closer to embracing the sacredness and tremendous potential of each individual. And we’re coming closer to the realization that physical differences are only skin deep – that culture, gender and other differences enrich us with synergistic perspectives.
When we see senseless acts of racial terror, we know that the perpetrators belong to the past. They remind us, however, that we still have a long way to go in creating a world where every child can achieve their potential. We need to ask how history will judge those who ignore famine and mass violence, even though global communication allows us to be aware of every crisis and gives us the means to respond.
The arc of the moral universe is indeed long. It’s up to us to bend it toward justice.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.