While celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, let’s not forget that segregation still exists

Segregation is the separation or isolation of individuals or groups from a larger group or from society. Segregation has taken many forms throughout history: refugee camps, work camps, concentration camps, castes, class systems, quarantines, slave quarters, homelands, ghettos, pales, redlined districts, housing development covenants, mass transit seating and classrooms, to name some of the more prevalent means of denying people the right to enter or leave.

Except for medical quarantines, not one of the myriad means to segregate are fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous or tolerable to the fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous and tolerant person. While it enriches a pluralistic society when individuals of a group—say Jews or Pakistanis—move to the same neighborhood and open specialty stores catering their cultural predilections, to restrict these or other groups to areas undermines any society or nation. The same is true if a group tries to keep others out, either everyone or another specific group. A free society demands free access to everyone to all areas that offer free access to anyone, except of course for private property not engaged in civic affairs, commerce or other public ends.

Nelson Mandela defeated a particularly pernicious form of segregation called apartheid.  He resolutely withstood years of jail to lead a movement that eventually negotiated with the defenders of apartheid and defeated them in a democratic election. He fulfilled the vision of Gandhi, the dream of Martin Luther King.  That he began his public career supporting violence only makes more poignant the story of his achieving the good he sought peacefully. It also demonstrates the caliber of the man—always growing, always improving, always questioning.

In celebrating Mandela’s long life, however, let us not forget the many forms of segregation that still exist today throughout the world, including the abominable irony of an apartheid-like system in a nation controlled by a national group that suffered one of the most horrifying examples of segregation in recorded history.

In the United States, our most harmful form of segregation is the separation of rich from poor in access to education. Educational segregation—enforced by expensive private schools, private lessons and gerrymandered public school districts, has unleveled the playing field, helping to create what is the least socially mobile country in the western world. In the United States, it is harder for people to leave the lowest fifth in income and wealth and easier for someone in the highest fifth to remain there than in any other industrialized country. It makes a mockery of our democratic ideals for it to be so hard to climb the economic ladder. Education has usually been the way that the poor have become rich in open societies; thus the connection between educational segregation and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.

But educational segregation is merely one form of this pox on society that we need to address. The situation in Israel and the occupied lands is morally intolerable.  The Wikipedia article titled “Racial Segregation” details legal and de facto segregation in Bahrain, Canada, Fiji, India, Malaysia, Mauritania, the United Kingdom and Yemen. This list doesn’t include prisoner and refugee camps.

The mass media is already trying to homogenize Nelson Mandela, as they have successfully done for Martin Luther King, turning the day of remembering King’s life into a general day of service to the community, which whitewashes that he dedicated his life to one particular kind of service: peaceful disobedience to oppose racial discrimination.  In the same way, the mass media is already focusing on Mandela the peaceful fighter for democratic elections and freedom. But freedom for South African Blacks involved much more than getting the right to vote.  Mandela’s fight was to create a pluralistic post-racial society of equal access, equal treatment, equal rights and equal opportunity.

The only way to appropriately honor Nelson Mandela is to continue the fight—the peaceful fight—against segregation of every kind, wherever it is.


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