Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and 150 Years of Progress

This is an update of a post from 2005 that has even more resonance in light of the election yesterday. It might provide some optimism to those who are feeling pessimistic today.

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 but not because Northerners called for abolition in the South or offered church membership to African Americans in the North. In most denominations, Northern church members didn't call for abolition or offer membership to African Americans. Churches split because Southern branches would accept no condemnation of slavery or questioning of its moral basis.

150 years ago The United States was one of the most free and equal societies in existence 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 criticized for dining with Booker T. Washington in the White House simply because he was black.
-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 the unshared burden of child rearing, 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.

100 years ago, The United States was one of the most free and equal societies in existence.

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.

50 years ago, the United States was one of the most free and equal societies in the world.

This year:
-An African American, raised by a single mother, was elected to be the 44th president of the United States
-He defeated a mother of 5 children who was running for vice-president on the other ticket.
-Another mother of 5 children is the Speaker of the house
-An African American woman is the current Secretary of State. Her predecessor was an African American man. His predecessor was a woman.
-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 differences between men and women have declined to the point where they can be explained by occupational choices women make and time lost in the labor force due to child rearing.
-Inequality between the sexes is still significant. Today many inequalities including incarceration rates, homicide rates, life expectancy, and college attendance bear unfavorably on men.
-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 the education establishment to win significant accountability through public standards and testing for students in schools nationwide.
-Discrimination on ethnic or religious basis is rarely tolerated openly except for affirmative action which is an attempt to correct for past discrimination.

Of course, there is still work to do on discrimination and inequality

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. Over each of the 50 year periods I talked about, living standards for all Americans, particularly the poorest Americans, have improved measurably and dramatically. Life expectancy, infant mortality, average height, literacy rate, just about anything you can measure has improved dramatically. Today, obesity is the most widespread dietary problem among poor and well off Americans.

Worldwide progress on freedom and equality has also been great over long sustained periods. Unfortunately, Europe's and the world's struggles with fascism and Communism created huge backward steps in freedom and equality for many 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. I am hopeful the two billion people of China and India can create progress for themselves.

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.

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