Beyond Formal Equality

Nelson Mandela died when I was dealing with my own family’s mourning, but the memorial service being held in South Africa today is but a bare tribute to his remarkable career and legacy.

Here’s the full video of President Obama’s speech at the memorial event:

Here’s how NBC described it:

Invoking Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the American founding fathers, the president spoke of Mandela as “the last great liberator of the 20th century” — a man who, after emerging from prison, held his country whole without taking up arms.

But the president used much of his eulogy, delivered before tens of thousands of people in Johannesburg in a pouring rain at the largest stadium on the African continent, as a call for the living to act in the name of justice and peace.

This is the line in the transcript that caught my attention:

The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.

This is the argument that Obama and many others keep making when confronted with claims that once slavery, or Jim Crow, or segregated schools, or formal obstacles to voting, or institutionalized discrimination, are gone then the struggle for equality must end, too, or it becomes a demand for “privileges.” This attitude reflects a willful blindness to the actual conditions of people in Africa and in the United States that is stunning in its tenacity. And it ignores the moral as well as the political stake of yesterday’s oppressor and his heirs–those to whom Mandela offered the hand of fellowship–in embracing true equality as more than a superficial purging of laws.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.