150 years ago in America people were owned, bought, sold, and used like farm animals. The major export of the United States (Cotton) was dependent on slave labor. No major political party dared advocate abolishing slavery where it existed. The "Radical" Republicans only dared oppose the extension of slavery. Most large businesses and other non-religious institutions, North and South, were complicit with slavery by investing or dealing with slave owners and slave based commerce. Most individuals North and South practiced and accepted discrimination against African Americans in their own localities. Churches had split over slavery by the 1840's not because Northerners dared call for abolition in the South (much less offer church membership to African Americans in the North), but because Southern branches would not accept any condemnation of slavery as morally problematic. The United States was one of the most free and equal societies in the world at that time.
100 years ago slavery had been gone for 40 years, but:
-open and constant discrimination against African Americans was accepted and practiced by most Americans. Separate but equal had been enshrined by a supreme court ruling. The vote was effectively denied to most African Americans. Theodore Roosevelt was widely censured for dining with Booker T. Washington in the White House.
-Women were not allowed to vote and women's rights in general were widely dependent on their relationship to a man. Women's participation in the labor force was restricted by unrestrained fertility, open discrimination, and strong social mores.
-Jews as well as many immigrants from "less desirable" parts of Europe were openly discriminated against in education, jobs, and even lodging.
And yet, The United States was one of the most free and equal societies in the world.
50 years ago women had the right to vote, but:
-Schools in the south were segregated, African Americans were still effectively denied the right to vote in many states, Economic, educational, and social opportunities were denied to African Americans.
-Social and Economic opportunities for women were still highly restricted.
-Discrimination against Jews and other ethnic groups was still open in some areas.
And yet, the United States was one of the most free and equal societies in the world.
-an African American woman born 50 years ago in Alabama will succeed another African American as Secretary of State. The qualifications of an African American Supreme court Justice to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are being widely debated. An African American defeated another African American to become U.S. Senator from Illinois. Public schools still don't provide equal education, but choice in education (Vouchers, Charter Schools, etc.) is improving opportunities for the poor wherever it is tried. An African American secretary of education fought for and won significant accountability through testing from the educational establishment. The face of America to the world as often as not has dark skin (I couldn't list all the African American athletes, entertainers, and public officials who are the ambassadors of the United States to the world).
-Women have greatly expanded economic opportunities and earn more than half of college degrees as well as significant proportions of advanced degrees in most fields including law and medicine. Wage differentials have declined to the point where they can be explained by time lost in the labor force due to child rearing and occupational choices for flexibility. Inequality is still significant and many inequalities (e.g., incarceration rates, homicide rates, life expectancy) bear unfavorably on men.
-Discrimination on ethnic or religious basis is rarely tolerated openly except where there is a claim of past discrimination to correct (affirmative action). There is work to do on more subtle discrimination.
And yes, the United States is among the most free and equal countries in the world today.
Past progress in human rights and equality makes me optimistic for the next 50 years. I am particularly optimistic since over each of those 50 year periods living standards for all Americans, particularly the poorest Americans, have improved measurably and dramatically. Life expectancy at birth, infant mortality, average height, literacy rate, just about anything you can measure has improved. Today, obesity is the most widespread dietary problem among poor Americans.
Worldwide progress on freedom and equality has also been great over long sustained periods. Europe and the world's struggles with fascism and Communism created huge backward steps in freedom and equality in the 20th century. I am optimistic (perhaps foolishly) that the European Union can create a framework for progress in Europe that can withstand challenges.
America is often portrayed as divided but almost all Americans can applaud the progress of the last 150 years and work for more progress on freedom and equality in the United States and the world.