Skip to main content

Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Legacies of Inequality, Myths of Progress

Today’s global inequities reflect long legacies of systemically generated and sustained efforts to benefit the few to the serious detriment of the many, often the world’s Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. What historical movements created such drastic disparities? Which social structures continue to uphold or even exacerbate them? What myths of progress abound, and to what ends? Northwestern University assistant professor of history Doug Kiel, School of Education and Social Policy associate professor Simone Ispa-Landa, and assistant professor of sociology Katrina Quisumbing King discussed the imperialist, white supremacist heritage of our existing realities and also highlighted the sparks of possibility for justice in a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar. Here are three key takeaways:

Both existing forms of inequalities and our myths of progress have deep historical roots.  Historically, elites in the United States have consolidated resources and power to the benefit of the white population while simultaneously using the idea of “progress” to “exclude or forcibly include others and justify violence and erasure,” said Quisumbing King.  Yet, the U.S. has not traditionally viewed itself as an empire, but rather “the bearer of a constitutional democracy that trains others in the school of civilization and government,” she added.  In reality, “development of the United States and Europe has been contingent upon the exploitation of non-white people,” she said. “Many societies that are held up as models of democracy achieved their development through conquest, dispossession and enslavement of others.” The same legacies of colonialism and exploitation that have allowed the U.S. and Europe to thrive are also why so many countries in the Global South remain economically crippled and underdeveloped.

To achieve real progress, we need to reckon with this history. When discussing progress both presently and historically, we need to be mindful of “whose progress we’re talking about, and how that progress is defined,” said Kiel.  The roots of our myths of progress and the belief that the U.S. is an inherently benevolent force that spreads democracy and human rights stem from the “Doctrine of Discovery, which presumed the inherent inferiority of Indigenous people and granted European empires a mandate to colonize the world,” said Kiel.  But the U.S. was not created on a blank slate, and real progress will only come when the nation “can own its relationship with Indigenous people and begin to right past wrongs,” he added.

It should not be assumed that progress is linear, unidirectional, or inevitable.  We are naturally keen to view the elimination of a particular form of inequality as a sign of progress, while often ignoring “new mechanisms that support old structures of inequalities that appear in their place,” Ispa-Landa said.  Often, it’s the myth of progress itself that prevents us from identifying and taking action against these new mechanisms, which can actually further exacerbate inequalities.  We see examples of this in education, with the recent reduction of  the gap in discipline rates between white and black students. “The classic conclusion from examining this data would be that we are reducing racist structures within public schooling,” said Ispa-Landa. But the reality is more complicated, as data shows that, rather than using suspension and expulsion as disciplinary solutions, many teachers will instead just ignore students of color, “which is just as dehumanizing and problematic as harsh punishment,” said Ispa-Landa. That’s not to say that we can’t ever achieve real progress, but that “meaningful progress is only possible through informed action, which means measuring the right things, in the right way, at the right time,” said Ispa-Landa.  Rather than assuming that progress only occurs “when students begin to conform to dominant white cultural norms,” she said, we should be questioning the actual criteria used to judge students in the first place and take an informed look at what the real needs are at the ground level.


This dialogue was part of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series, which focuses on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter. This webinar is focused on UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and explores the infrastructures upholding today’s ballooning inequalities as well as the steps some are taking to build a more egalitarian future.