I clearly remember that day. I was there, in the crowd, when Obama stepped onto the stage in Chicago to celebrate his electoral victory. In Boston, bus drivers parked their vehicles in the middle of the streets, partially to join the fun and partially because the nightly crowds had made regular traffic impossible. Obama took his oath of office, and generations of Americans celebrated and wept on the National Mall in DC.
Of course the image of a nationwide sigh of relief is misleading: Like most bipartisan elections, the 2008 campaign wasn’t exactly a landslide (53% to 46% of the popular vote). But it certainly felt like a historic event. To many Americans, 2008 seemed to promise a new, better, more hopeful and more tolerant America. And those who disagreed with Obama’s campaign slogans recognized the symbolic significance of his triumph. 53 years and one month after Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus, the first African-American president moved into the White House. What an achievement for a country whose history cannot be separated from the history of slavery and racial segregation!
For centuries, America’s ideal that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” carried a footnote that limited its promise. No more, it seemed. For America’s psychological constitution, 2008 was an important year.
The truth, however, is that the United States is still grappling with the problem of racism, with discrimination and with the long-term consequences of past slavery in the country. Racism may be less "blatant," as the Supreme Court posits, but it remains latent -- and that's what makes laws like the Voting Rights Act so important.
In Florida, the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, has just begun. His justification in the slaying: Martin had looked suspicious to him when he entered into his gated community. What that actually meant, though, is that a black person didn't belong there -- he couldn't have been up to anything but trouble. "These assholes, they always get away," Zimmerman reportedly told police.
Should these examples be considered exceptions or simple anecdotes? By no means. Discrimination still remains deeply and systemically ingrained in US society. And that fact is revealed in the data.
The US is one of the world’s most prosperous nations, and also one of the most unequal. No other Western democracy has to shoulder as much economic inequality as the US, which is wedged between Venezuela and Uruguay in global inequality rankings. And despite countless statistical and anecdotal indicators, most Americans refuse to talk about the elephant in the room.
African-Americans and Latinos comprise a disproportionate share of those in prison -- and on death row. Africans have a 1 in 15 chance of landing behind bars, whereas the chance of Caucasians going to jail are 1 in 106. Prison sentences for blacks are also usually harsher than those for whites -- even when similar crimes are committed, particularly when it comes to drug convictions.
African-Americans are also at an economic disadvantage, earning on average less than white people. Some 27 percent of African-Americans live under the poverty line, compared to just 10 percent of Caucasians.
"Voting discrimination still exists," a "deeply disappointed" Obama warned on Tuesday. The Supreme Court's ruling could now give leeway for this type of chicanery. Republicans in Texas have already announced they will try to quickly push through a draconian mandatory ID law that would disproportionately impact the poor and minorities.
Protective laws remain indispensable in the United States, even if the principle of Affirmative Action is slowly starting to appear passé. Even in modern America, it will be some time before racism truly becomes a thing of the past.
Nevertheless the ruling by the Supreme Court in Washington that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to combat the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, is no longer valid, is indeed a big step forward against voting discrimination.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo Credit: AFP: The U.S. Supreme Court Judges