As Nelson Mandela’s body was laid to rest, the leaders from across the world who came to pay tribute to him left with shared perspectives. They saw the fruits of the remarkable triumphs of Mandela and the African National Congress — the defeat of apartheid, the transition of power from the oppressive minority to the newly empowered majority, the creation of a great democracy. And they saw the continued inequality that scars South Africa, the gulf between the wealthy and the impoverished, still largely reflecting a color line.
We see the same in this country. We celebrate, as we should, the remarkable triumphs of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement: the end of apartheid in the South, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the legal prohibition of racial discrimination in employment and education.
Yet we also see the gulf between rich and poor, a gulf still often tracing a color line in many of our cities and regions.
These parallels are not random or accidental. The reality was one people enslaved on three continents — North America, Europe and Africa. Racism is a tool that was used to justify the brutality. Racism exploits the other economically. It creates the illusion of one group’s superiority and another’s inferiority.
The attitude and the practice get rooted into institutions across the society. In South Africa, Mandela and the ANC ended apartheid laws and won the right to vote. In the US, Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement did the same.
But there is also engrained economic separation: clubs, businesses and meetings that remain closed informally, even if they were no longer legally separated. There is the discrimination of legacy: the young inheriting less, having less access to elite schools, for their parents had been locked out. There is the discrimination of property and neighborhood: people of color left out of better neighborhoods, even after they could no longer be legally excluded. There is the discrimination in education: poor urban schools can’t keep the best teachers nor offer the best equipment and supplies. There is discrimination in the access to capital: minority businesses still find it more difficult to raise capital, and rapacious mortgage bankers still prey on minority homeowners.
Over time, a few from across the color line excel and break into the closed clubs, but the majority still faces long odds. But the problem in South Africa, where Blacks are the majority, or the U.S., where people of color are becoming the majority, is that the whole economy suffers from the vestiges of entrenched discrimination.
In South Africa, an impoverished majority limits the ability of the country to build a prosperous economy and stable society. In the U.S., the government does less than in other industrial nations to lift the poor, a legacy of the belief that these “takers” are “those people.” Even now the right attacks the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” for allegedly raising costs on the middle class in order to provide health care for “those people.”
In reality, most poor people in the U.S. work every day that they can. They take the early bus. They serve and prepare our food in fast food restaurants. They staff the Wal-Marts where we buy our goods. And at the end of the week, they are paid so little that they are forced to use food stamps to be able to feed themselves. More poor people are white than black. They are disproportionately young and female.
So as we celebrate the remarkable triumphs of Nelson Mandela and his movement in South Africa, and of Dr. King and his movement in the U.S., we realize that much more remains to be done. They freed their peoples but could not win them equality. That remains the next chapter.