All Americans, Black or White

Americans are about to experience an important moment in their collective history. On Friday*, President Barack Obama will deliver a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor killed along with eight church members — two men and six women — on June 17 in a Protestant church in Charleston, South Carolina. All of the victims were black, and their killer, a 21-year-old white man, has clearly justified his crime using racist remarks.

For almost a week, the United States has again been confronting a past that has profoundly influenced the minds and culture of its citizens, notably in the South. Slavery was established within the state system by the founding fathers despite their love of liberty. White people considered black people to be inferior sub-humans who did not deserve freedom.

After the abolition of slavery, this idea persisted in a system of segregation. This was also overthrown in time, notably by the mobilization of black pastors like Martin Luther King, but followers of apartheid continue to reveal themselves, some of them falling into crime. More broadly, African-Americans today run a greater risk than white people of being stopped by the police, charged with crimes, and condemned to serve long prison sentences.

However, for fifty some years, the immigration of Latin-Americans and Asians has transformed the United States into a multiethnic society. The reactions to the tragedy in Charleston show a great willingness to overcome divisions and undermine the cultural symbols of die-hard racists. In the South, many people understand the need to beware of nostalgic glorification of the past and of current popular symbols; the confederate flag for example should be relegated to museums.

Over the years, thanks to determined public politics and profound cultural changes, professional opportunities for black Americans have grown, racial divisions have been overcome, and a man of mixed racial heritage who identifies as black has been presiding over the country for over six years. The words that Barack Obama will speak on Friday, June 26 will no doubt mark a new milestone along a painful journey.

*June 26, 2015

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