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The Changing Faces of Progress and Not So Random Thoughts on Branding

On May 21, 2022, I wrote this question and a brief commentary on Facebook:

“Here's what I want to know. When did "progressive" become a dirty word?

When you understand that "ive" is a suffix meaning "doing or intending to do something specified," and the root word, "progress," then you understand they are saying "progress" is bad.

Up is down. WTF

Of course, as is always the case with me, there is a method to why I choose particular words and phrases in the American lexicon. I chose this one because of its pejorative use by Republicans as well as the Moderate and so-called centrist factions of the Democratic party versus its supposed positive use by the people described as leftists or progressive Democrats of today. Keywords are dichotomy, paradox and branding. Why? Because the subjectivity of progress is so deeply categorized by the people seeking it, and as usual, within a Racist America, just about every concept used in theory to be good for all actually depends greatly upon the people in power who have created their own particular brand of the concept.

I was looking for comments to explain its meanings in political discourse and received just a few varying opinions. Most were related to this generally positive tilt on the terms. My initial thought was, “why wouldn’t it?” Since the words, progressive and progressivism both share the root word, “progress,” one would think what they evoke in terms of connotation would mean something well intentioned, forward thinking, with a nod to the future. It was certainly what I grew up with and learned as a necessary component to upward mobility and growth as an adult, measured as part of an overall ideology of meritocracy: steady achievement was progress. However, one comment discussed the term as it was espoused in early American politics, which caused me to investigate further.

Indeed, steady achievement has been a mainstay of progress and its movement across this country. However, the term, progress, like most words in a racialized America have at least two connotations which can be applied for any given purpose, and progress or being progressive, indeed “progressivism” was an “America First” keyword with the most egregious connotations for Black Americans in the early twentieth century. In the book, “The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900 – 1917,” by David W. Southern, he discussed the period of the nadir and the South as where:

“…white progressives followed the lead of racist demagogues such as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and James Vardaman by consolidating the Jim Crow system of legal segregation and the disfranchisement of blacks, resulting in the emergence of the one-party Democratic South. When legal discrimination did not sufficiently subordinate blacks, southern whites resorted liberally to fraud, intimidation, and violence—most notably in ghastly lynchings and urban race riots.[1]

While these progressives in the South were perfecting institutional, systemic Racism, Mr. Southern went on to write:

“…most northern progressives were either indifferent to the fate of southern blacks or actively supported the social system in the South. Yankee reformers obsessed over the concept of race and became ensnared in a web of “scientific racism” that convinced them that blacks belonged to an inferior breed of human beings. The tenures of both Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote more about race than any other American president, and Woodrow Wilson, who was reared in the Deep South, proved disastrous for African Americans, who reached their “nadir” even as Wilson led the United States on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.[1]

The Progressive Era, which spanned the 1890s through the 1920s, can considered the absolute worst period for Black people since Reconstruction was overthrown. In fact, Woodrow Wilson, arguably one of the worst presidents for Black people in America was considered a staunch “progressivist.” Even Theodore Roosevelt, also a progressivist, believed Black people as a race and at that point in history were in their “adolescence” and opposed voting rights for Black men.[2]

Having discovered the period when progress and progressivism was a dirty word, at least for Black people in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries, I realized had I lived during that period I would definitely think the term progress was an unpleasant concept to say the least, since so many things done in its name was to the utter detriment of Black life. So how could I have grown up to believe the opposite? Now, I understand progress for some is glaringly different than progress for others. One might even think of it as a type, or brand of progress or progressivism which is appealing to people depending on their political persuasions. Nevertheless, that’s not the focus or context of this essay. It is obvious what progress and progressivism meant back then.

Based on what progress represented for Black people during that period, it does beg the question, at least for me, “what has progress in this country really achieved for Black people in America or have Black people in America achieved what we have in spite of progress?” I mean, especially if we consider what the goals of progress were endeavoring to achieve in terms of segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and violent, state sponsored terror, progress was a barrier unto itself for Black people and in order to progress, we had to undo progress. Of all the paradoxes inherent within the ideology of white supremacism, this one has got to be right up there close to the top of the dichotomies that live inside. In essence, their brand of progress was detrimental to the health and safety of Black people.

But when did the face of progressivism change? In this 21st century, the literal face of progressivism has shifted to the extent that it is considered an extreme far left conceptual leaning with the faces of predominately non-white people rather than its extreme far right edge of the early twentieth century. Was it during the Civil Rights era of the middle of the twentieth century? And what has shifted the ideology so far to the edge of the left that it would appear progress only appeals to the progressives themselves?

Or is it simply about their brand of progress?

In the final analysis, it appears progress depends on the faces of power and what they consider progress. Like an advertisement on television, I suppose, like everything else in this country, progress is as subjective as the eye of the beholder and those of us who want it will remain subject to those in power with the money and influence to brand their version to the masses.


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