Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice? Martin Luther King Jr. believed that it did, and so have millions of other people who want to see justice achieved.
But justice and injustice are episodic. We have made great progress in the 20th and 21st centuries, progress for well-being, democracy and peace. We have vanquished racial segregation. We have witnessed the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Women have gained power, respect and esteem.
But horrible things have happened as well: the Holocaust, the increasing and exponential overcrowding of this planet, the impoverishment of billions of people, coup after coup to prevent democratization of economies and governance throughout the world, and the polarization of wealth and income in our own country. We make progress in some areas and fall back in others. There is certainly no continuous progress toward justice.
This is why the second part of Dr. King’s discussion of the arc bending toward justice is of far greater importance. “It does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”
This second part demands the participatory act of working for justice. It is the working for justice that creates justice.
In May, I was a proud parent at my daughter’s graduation from college. As at all graduations — high school, community college, university — the atmosphere was filled with pride, accomplishment, melancholy, hope, and striving for our future.
When the economy was booming a couple of years ago, most kids coming out of college were quickly absorbed into the corporate community, for better or worse. Having some money, easy credit, and urged on by our national leaders to a “have it now” approach to life, they joined the consumer society. Those catalyzing elements of everyday existence — consumption, credit, and work to pay off the interest — do not make for a very fulfilling life. Plus, this materialist existence enables these new workers and consumers to turn a blind eye to the inequities of opportunity and security embedded in our economy even when it is going strong.
Now newly minted graduates aren’t getting jobs quite so easily. The credit card come-ons have dwindled to a trickle. And they don’t have the money to spend, spend, spend. They look around at their own insecurity of paying off college debt, how to pay for health care and finding affordable rent, all the while facing unemployment, underemployment and short-term employment. America’s problems are their problems.
What to do? These young people are positioned to help define a new American society, brought to us by the circumstances of the current economic and financial breakdown. They are on the cusp of creating a society in which materialism takes a back seat to well-being. They are positioned to push on the arc of justice, and make it bend for the better.
Applications for AmeriCorps National Service positions have more than tripled. In our state, 2,451 AmeriCorps volunteers are engaging in community service, including helping out at the Boys and Girls Clubs and Volunteers of America in Everett. Teach for America had a record 35,000 applications from graduating college seniors this year to teach in low-income areas across the country. Unemployed artists and writers are flocking to organizations, some with weird names like “826 Seattle,” that are specializing in helping kids become better readers and writers and catch up on math and science. People are constructing their own worlds of hope and promise.
We have a lot of work to do on the systemic fundamentals of justice — such as universal health coverage, affordable higher education, full employment, and full funding for K-12 education. The generation now reaching adulthood and chartering their lives amid the current uncertainties is more consciously doing their part, pushing on the arc of justice. We must emulate them, and insure that arc encompasses all of us, both in the pursuit and in the realization of justice.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org ). His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.