The Incremental March of Human Progress

Four years ago, first when Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for president, then again when he won the election, there was a wave of commentary about how much the United States, and the whole Western world, had changed for the better. The scourge of racism, the subjugation of women, the marginalization of the disabled, the persecution of gays and lesbians: All this had diminished – not vanished, but diminished – in such a short time.

It was a salutary moment. Change can come in sudden, dramatic lurches, like a tectonic plate plunging forward in an earthquake. But more often change is incremental, one little nudge after another, gradually accumulating.

When the former sort of change happens, there are banner head-lines in the newspapers. But incremental change is routinely ignored – at least until there is some event, like an anniversary, or the election of the first black president, that causes us to look back and be amazed at how far we’ve come.

When Barack Obama formally accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency this week, there was no looking back. The novelty is gone. And so we are back to incremental change. Modest, slow. And ignored.

But no less significant. A year after a black man became president of the United States, the venerable Archie Comics released Archie #608. On the cover, Archie kisses a girl. Archie, of course, is the wholesome, red-headed, eternal teenager from Riverdale. The girl is Valerie Brown. And Valerie is black.

Sadly, it didn’t work out between Archie and Valerie. But this year, in Archie #633 and #644, Valerie imagines “what would happen if she married Archie.” The cover of #633 features Archie and Valerie playing guitars together. In front, playing her own guitar, is Archie and Valerie’s daughter.

Little “Star” has chocolate skin and red hair. And she is the embodiment of the fear of miscegenation that has been at the heart of Western racism for centuries. “The pervasiveness of racial complexes in American sexual history would be difficult to exaggerate,” writes Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in Interracial Intimacies.

Wherever there were substantial numbers of black people in the U.S., white lawmakers passed laws forbidding either marriage or sex between blacks and whites. Even in 1961, when Barack Obama was born, the future president’s existence would have been evidence of a crime in several states. Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally do away with anti-miscegenation laws (in the wonderfully named case of Loving v. Virginia).

In terms of profound social change, 1967 might as well be last week. But this is an even more re-cent story.

In 1992, according to comics producer Dwayne McDuffie, writers who script the Archie comics planned on creating a character who would be Archie’s rival for the affections of Betty. He would be dreamy. And black. And the guy in charge threw it out because that would be crazy.

And comics writer and editor Chris Sims related another Archie Comics incident in, believe it or not, 2008. “Cheryl Blossom,” a young white woman, was shown with several boys and readers were invited to suggest which one she should choose. One of the boys was clearly black. But in subsequent editions his skin suddenly and mysteriously lightened. It would be easy to dismiss this as fluff but Archie Comics, like Norman Rockwell paintings, are meant to be visual representations of a sweet, American ideal. And they are products sold to children – and the parents who watch over them. There cannot be a whiff of the risqué in them. Nor can there be any politics, except the most wholesome sort that absolutely no one would object to. The fact that the cover of such a comic book shows an interracial couple with an interracial child is therefore as revealing as any survey about American attitudes.

And there’s lots more evidence like that. On soap operas and TV commercials – two notoriously risk-averse fields – interracial couples have become routine just in the last several years.

And Gallup surveys confirm re-cent changes: In 2008, 79 per cent of American said they approved of marriages “between whites and non-whites.” In 2011, 86 per cent did. Even in the American South, inter-racial marriage is now approved by 79 per cent of the population.

We are approaching the culmination of a change decades in the making: In 1958, an astonishing four per cent of Americans approved of interracial marriage; at the current rate of change, public opinion will be exactly the opposite in just a few years.

The embrace of diversity lags in other ways, of course. On the same night in 2008 that a black man won a presidential election, a majority of voters in California not only rejected same-sex marriage, they sup-ported the nullification of same-sex marriages that had already taken place following a favourable court ruling. And that black president? He opposed same-sex marriage, too.

But incremental change kept doing its slow work.

In 2008, 40 per cent of Americans supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2012, 50 per cent did. Same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and Washington D.C. And this year, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party endorsed it.

None of this would have been conceivable 50 years ago. Even 30 years ago, it would have sounded impossible. Twenty years ago, it was perhaps a possibility for some distant future.

And yet, here it is, the most amazing progress, produced without earthquakes and headlines – only the incremental advance of basic human decency.