There are many different ways to look at the history of U.S. race relations. One extreme, for example, compares America’s past and present state of race relations with a future when all of America’s remaining imperfections will have been ironed out. Let’s call that the “future perfect” perspective. The other extreme compares the flawed present with a past scarred by still greater injustices. Let’s call that the “past imperfect” perspective. Both can be illuminating and both can be held at the same time. An appreciation of the past-imperfect perspective provides an understanding of history as a complex and messy process of gradual liberation. The future-perfect perspective reminds us that we can and should strive to do better.

Progress of Civilization

Were a reasonable person today asked to design a society de novo, the blueprint would almost certainly contain a proviso stipulating that all people are equal under the law. Few things strike the modern reader as more sensible than equal protection without regard to race, sex, or class. What’s often underappreciated is how extraordinarily recent such sentiment is.

Homo sapiens is, by some accounts, 300,000 years old. Throughout most of that time, we were engaged in a zero-sum struggle for survival. We survived through the slaughter of wild animals and flourished by thieving from other humans or enslaving them outright. Our allegiances rested with our family and tribe, which made our individual survival easier. The notion of bestowing equal dignity on all people — no matter what they looked like and where in the world they lived — would have struck our ancestors as utterly fanciful. Not surprisingly, scholarly understanding of “our place in the universe” reflected the dismal reality of human existence. Most of the ancient thinkers believed that history was a process of gradual decline from a mythical “golden age.” Homo homini lupus — a man is a wolf to another man.

Fast-forward some 10,000 generations to the time of the Renaissance, when the renewed interest in science had to be reconciled with the main tenets of the Christian religion, including the often-ignored and inconsistently applied insistence of Christian teachings on the equal dignity of all of God’s children. That led some thinkers to theorize that the physical world had to be governed by divine laws. Since the Christian God was good, the Renaissance reasoning went, so must be the laws governing society in general and individual lives in particular. Working from that assumption, later philosophers, such as the Scottish thinker Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) argued that a good society resulted from “natural bonds of beneficence and humanity” in all people. That idea of universal human bonds formed the foundation of the Enlightenment. Humanism was born.

According to the American scholar Arthur Herman, the Enlightenment developed the “first secular theory” of human progress, which was then known as “civilization.” As a historical process, civilization came to be seen as a linear transformation with distinct stages. First, humans existed in a “state of nature.” They were alone and vulnerable to cold, hunger, and predation. In the second stage, humans came together to form nomadic bands of herders and hunter-gatherers. With agriculture came the third stage of human development. Finally, people gathered in towns and cities and began to live through industry and commerce.

With each stage, humans become more productive, more connected, and more civil. As agriculture improves and food becomes abundant, people specialize in distinct tasks and live through exchange. People who might have been rivals become trading partners and friends. As human relationships become more complex, people become socialized, polite, and refined. All of that stimulating conversation eventually leads to further advances in art and science.

The underlying force that drove the process of civilization was, the Enlightenment thinkers believed, commerce. In the words of Scottish historian William Robertson (1721–1793), “Commerce . . . softens and polishes the manners of men. It unites them, by one of the strongest of all ties, the desire of supplying their mutual wants.” People, who might have otherwise hated one another, in other words, were brought together in the pursuit of profit. By the 18th century, the extent of human cooperation within the context of the market economy reached levels that even philosophers, such as Voltaire, felt obliged to opine about it.

Go into the London Stock Exchange — a more respectable place than many a court — and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt. Here the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist and the Anglican accepts a promise from the Quaker. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies some go to the Synagogue and others for a drink, this one goes to be baptized in a great bath in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that one has his son’s foreskin cut and has some Hebrew words he doesn’t understand mumbled over the child, others go to their church and await the inspiration of God with their hats on, and everybody is happy.

Besides creating wealth and friends, commerce created the middle class, or “bourgeoisie.” This class of people was educated, but unlike the nobility, the bourgeois still had to work to survive. The Scottish literary critic Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850) argued that the unique position of the bourgeoisie was responsible for the continuing moral, social, and economic advances of civilization. Finally, commerce allowed people to create wealth independently of their rulers, which in turn allowed them to question the political relationship between ruler and subject. Once people could make a living outside feudal structures, which is to say without the need for a lord’s land, people started to question the need to obey the lord’s laws.

To thinkers such as the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) and French historian François Guizot (1787–1874), dependency and tyranny were remnants of humanity’s barbarian past, while liberty and self-governance were the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. The French mathematician and philosopher Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) went as far as to predict the global triumph of liberty. He wrote:

Then will arrive the moment in which the sun will observe in its course free nations only, acknowledging no other master than their reason; in which tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments, will no longer exist but in history and upon the stage; in which our only concern will be to lament their past victims and dupes, and, by the recollection of their horrid enormities, to exercise a vigilant circumspection, that we may be able instantly to recognize and effectually to stifle by the force of reason, the seeds of superstition and tyranny, should they ever presume again to make their appearance upon the earth.

His contemporary, German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), agreed. Since the Europe of his day was once barbarous, he reasoned, surely everyone was capable of enlightenment. Arriving at that point, it needs repeating, took centuries. The evolution of ideas was mirrored in the real world by the gradual liberation (empowerment, in today’s parlance) of the formerly powerless (or excluded). Human institutions, which were previously dominated and exploited by the nobility, the clergy, and the army, began to serve a broader spectrum of society. The role of the bourgeoisie, as the University of Chicago at Illinois economist Deirdre McCloskey documented in her trilogy of books on the bourgeois era, was crucial in breaking the power monopoly of the “higher orders.”

Like any other revolutionary idea, greater inclusion and empowerment (or, to use the original terminology, “liberalism”) did not progress steadily and without setbacks. Some people jealously guarded their new rights, while others refused to bestow equal dignity on others outright. And so, liberalism coexisted with imperialism and slavery for centuries. On occasion, rights that were previously granted were violently, but thankfully only temporarily, withdrawn from some people, such as the Jews during the Third Reich, Black Americans during the Woodrow Wilson administration, and Japanese Americans during World War II. But the tide of gradual liberation continued, eroding eternal prejudices that still remained.

Equal Dignity Emerges

Since both the Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie arose in Europe and its offshoots in North America, it stands to reason that the initial beneficiaries of the change in relations between the powerful and the powerless were the city burghers or the newly enriched white men. Of course, the matter did not rest there. Once the power monopoly of the “higher orders,” which characterized human society since the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago, was broken, others saw an opening. And so, over the past 200 years, Western economic and political institutions came to include women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. Ponder that for a moment. Two centuries. That’s 0.07 percent of our time on Earth.

The process of institutional change differed across the globe. In England, for example, the parliament that emerged from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 originally consisted of nobles, bishops, and shire representatives, and the franchise was restricted to a tiny sliver of propertied men. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 expanded the franchise further. By the time of the Representation of the People Act of 1884, some 60 percent of all men could vote. All men over the age of 21 and “qualified” women over the age of 30 got the vote in 1918, but equal enfranchisement of all women had to wait until 1928.

In America, the first people to get a say in politics were white male property owners. During the early part of the 19th century, state legislatures begin to limit the property requirement for voting; the de jure racial barrier to Black enfranchisement was removed only by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. As everyone knows, the Southern states used every trick imaginable to keep Black Americans from voting as a practical matter for decades to come, and women were enfranchised only in 1920.

The Present Should Give Optimism about the Future

As a result of ideological and institutional changes, the world has become freer, more just, more compassionate, gentler, and more equal. But clearly there is room for much improvement. Our economic and political institutions are flawed because they are a product of flawed human beings. Or, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed in 1784, “from such crooked timber as humankind is made of nothing entirely straight can be made.”

The future-perfect perspective is right to point to the injustices that still persist, but that does not mean that our society in general and our institutions in particular are unsalvageable. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater in exchange for a promise of a utopian future, as some extremists demand. The word “utopia” combines two Greek words, οὐ (ou, or “not”) and τόπος (tópos, or “place, region”). It literally means “no place.” Those who attempted to reach it in the past — be it the religious zealots during the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, the French revolutionaries in the 18th century, or a plethora of Communist governments in the 20th century — failed to achieve freedom, prosperity, peace, or equality (except, of course, for the equality of suffering).

Those advocating a new start include Harvard University professor Cornel West said last month on CNN:

I think what we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment. What I mean by that is that the history of Black people for over 200 and some years in America has been looking at America’s failure. Its capitalist economy could not generate and deliver in such a way that people could live lives of decency. The nation-state, its criminal-justice system, its legal system could not generate protection of rights and liberties. And now our culture, of course is so market-driven — everything for sale, everybody for sale — it can’t deliver the kind of nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose. . . . The system cannot reform itself.

I doubt that West is right. After all, the United States has abolished slavery and Jim Crow laws and passed extensive civil-rights legislation — all in an attempt to overcome overt discrimination against Black Americans. Other reforms should follow. They should include policing reforms, aimed at protecting the safety and dignity of the citizenry, and occupational licensing reform, aimed at reducing the ranks of the unemployed.

But even if West is right, who is to say that out of the ashes of the old society, a better one will emerge? The evolution of ideas — the ever-expanding circle of empathy that the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer has written about — is ongoing. As ideas change, so will the institutions that govern all of us. Judging by the universal condemnation of the killing of George Floyd, it seems reasonable to say that our society can adapt and change. Let’s keep it and make it better.

A version of this essay originally appeared in National Review.