The Problem with Gradualism: Rethinking the Pace of Social Change

Jamie Arpin-Ricci
8 min readJun 30, 2020
(photo by Jacob Lund)

Whether it is concerning the current movements growing to resist racism in America and around the world, or whether it relates to my own advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ people (especially in the Christian community), a common theme comes up in conversation: a reminder that people (namely those subject to oppression) need to be patient and understanding because change takes time and that, in the end, justice will prevail. This is a common call for those who advocate for gradualism.

In this context, the term gradualism refers to the idea that social change comes as a result of slow and small increments rather than through means aiming for immediate change, such as protests and revolution. Those who advocate for it may not entirely dismiss the legitimacy of protests or revolutionary action (though some explicitly do) but rather center gradualism as the primary means of change in social contexts.

I first came to understand these ideas clearly while reading James H. Cone’s ground-breaking book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. In the book, Cone contrasts the response to racial segregation by two men, Reinhold Niebuhr (the most influential Christian theologian in America at the time) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Niebuhr was deeply sympathetic to the plight of African Americans but did not support the movements on the rise to overthrow oppressive social and governmental realities. Cone quotes Niebuhr in the second chapter of the book:

“The Negroes,” Niebuhr said, “will have to exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history will gradually fulfill the logic of justice.” (pg. 39)

King rejected this gradualism, recognizing the immediate need for change and the daily cost in black lives if they failed to act. Gradualism was almost always advocated for by those who were beneficiaries of the racial segregation (and thus had the most to lose with change, especially immediate change). This is not to say that King was naive, unaware that true change would take time. Rather, he resisted it as a primary means of bringing change.

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is a bisexual author & activist with more than 25 years experience living at the intersection of faith, sexuality, and justice.