Parallel Societies

Barack Obama hasn’t traveled after Ferguson and Baltimore. Now, he gives a speech at a funeral in Charleston because the situation is clear. The visit [is meant to] unify blacks and whites, who are otherwise only neighbors.

It’s no easy task to eulogize a pastor who was shot. For Barack Obama, his trip this Friday to Charleston is somewhat liberating. He wasn’t flown to Ferguson, where the racial protests began. In the suburb of St. Louis mainly inhabited by blacks but ruled by whites, the president wanted to leave it to [the Judicial Branch] to clarify why a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man. Obama also didn’t travel to Baltimore, where unarmed African-Americans set fires and attacked police. In the suffering city, one hour’s drive by car from the White House, he did not want to diminish black leadership nor draw a parallel between a criminal pack and protesting youth. In Charleston, however, things are clear: A young white man, convinced of the superiority of his race, shot nine blacks as they read the Bible.

Obama recalled the time after the arson attack on a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls died there in 1963. The president quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: One can’t merely worry about what the murderer thought, but also “about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Obama was too hard on many conservatives, and many were disappointed by his historical references to America’s judicial history. “The system and philosophy of institutionalized racism,” wrote The Wall Street Journal, “no longer exists”; the mass murder by a single perpetrator was inexplicable and, in any case, not an expression of American evil. Even Obama has often exhorted blacks not to throw away enormous progress in recent decades despite all the [persisting] anger. However, he noted this week that the legacy of slavery and segregation was still “part of our DNA.”

The extent to which racist reflexes live on in the minds of many Americans is difficult to measure. Statistics show that circumstances for most blacks force them to forfeit the American dream. The average net worth of a black family is only $11,000 — one-thirteenth of what the average white household possesses. Black men are twice as likely to be unemployed. If today’s trends continue, then every third African-American born in the beginning of the century will spend time in jail at least once, which is likely to happen only to every seventeenth of his white peers. Only 13 percent of the population, but 40 percent of prisoners are black. African-Americans are punished more severely. Because so many young black men die by disease, are killed or imprisoned, there are a half million more black women between the ages of 25 and 54 living outside of prison than men.

The deficits have improved in other areas. Forty years ago, nearly one in four blacks dropped out of school. The dropout rate is now only 8 percent. However, many black children grow up without fathers. But black men who stay with their families spend more time than white fathers contributing to childcare. In many places, a strong black middle class has been established. Their pretty homes with double garages are similar to those of whites. But mixed neighborhoods are rare. White fans also cheer for black musicians, TV stars and athletes. But less than 5 percent of married blacks have a white partner. Generations of immigrants may have been absorbed by America’s melting pot, but even in the sixth decade following the abolition of racial discrimination, whites and blacks constitute parallel societies. You can chat at work, but seldom visit [one another’s] home. You can watch the same movie, but pray in different churches. The black and white middle class are the same in that they isolate themselves from the misery of the black underclass.

Obama finds himself at a milestone of change and progress in American history. At the same time, he knows that sometimes the resulting discontent over policy can blow back on racist reservations and strengthen them. The black man in the White House has further polarized the nation, and the perception [of black and white Americans] of the incidents from Ferguson to Baltimore drift further apart. But the mass murderer of Charleston had the opposite effect: He wanted to incite a race war, yet produced a cross-racial effect to which the 154-year-old Confederate flag can’t hold a candle. The community long applauded the police the first Sunday service in the Emanuel Church after the massacre. Obama can thus travel to Charleston and remember the long path that exists both behind and before America.

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