5. There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.
Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination remain, without a doubt, extraordinarily powerful forces. The statistical and experimental evidence is overwhelming — this irrefutable proof of widespread discrimination against African-Americans, for instance, should put the “racism is dead” fantasy to bed.
Yet the need to combat discrimination denial shouldn’t blind us to the good news. Over the centuries, humanity has made extraordinary progress in taming its hate for and ill-treatment of other humans on the basis of difference alone. Indeed, it is very likely that we live in the history of modern civilization. It’s not a huge prize given how bad the past had been, but there are still gains worth celebrating.
Go back 150 years in time and the point should be obvious. Take four prominent groups in 1860: African-Americans were in chains, European Jews were routinely massacred in the ghettos and shtetls they were confined to, women around the world were denied the opportunity to work outside the home and made almost entirely subordinate to their husbands, and LGBT people were invisible. The improvements in each of these group’s statuses today, both in the United States and internationally, are incontestable.
On closer look, we have reason to believe the happy trends are likely to continue. Take racial discrimination. In 2000, Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo penned a comprehensive assessment of the data on racial attitudes in the United States. He found a “national consensus” on the ideals of racial equality and integration. “A nation once comfortable as a deliberately segregationist and racially discriminatory society has not only abandoned that view,” Bobo writes, “but now overtly positively endorses the goals of racial integration and equal treatment. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from this ideal, despite events that many thought would call it into question. The magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.”
The norm against overt racism has gone global. In her book on the international anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, Syracuse’s Audie Klotz says flatly that “the illegitimacy of white minority rule led to South Africa’s persistent diplomatic, cultural, and economic isolation.” The belief that racial discrimination could not be tolerated had become so widespread, Klotz argues, that it united the globe — including governments that had strategic interests in supporting South Africa’s whites — in opposition to apartheid. In 2011, 91 percent of respondents in a sample of 21 diverse countries said that equal treatment of people of different races or ethnicities was important to them.
Racism obviously survived both American and South African apartheid, albeit in more subtle, insidious forms. “The death of Jim Crow racism has left us in an uncomfortable place,” Bobo writes, “a state of laissez-faire racism” where racial discrimination and disparities still exist, but support for the kind of aggressive government policies needed to address them is racially polarized. But there’s reason to hope that’ll change as well: two massive studies of the political views of younger Americans by my TP Ideas colleagues, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, found that millenials were significantly more racially tolerant and supportive of government action to address racial disparities than the generations that preceded them. Though I’m not aware of any similar research of on a global scale, it’s hard not to imagine they’d find similar results, suggesting that we should have hope that the power of racial prejudice may be waning.
The story about gender discrimination is very similar: after the feminist movement’s enormous victories in the 20th century, structural sexism still shapes the world in profound ways, but the cause of gender equality is making progress. In 2011, 86 percent of people in a diverse 21 country sample said that equal treatment on the basis of gender was an important value. The U.N.’s Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index — a comprehensive study of reproductive health, social empowerment, and labor market equity — saw a 20 percent decline in observable gender inequalities from 1995 to 2011. IMF data show consistent global declines in wage disparities between genders, labor force participation, and educational attainment around the world. While enormous inequality remains, 2013 is looking to be the worst year for sexism in history.
Finally, we’ve made astonishing progress on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination — largely in the past 15 years. At the beginning of 2003, zero Americans lived in marriage equality states; by the end of 2013, 38 percent of Americans will. Article 13 of the European Community Treaty bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and, in 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution committing the council to documenting and exposing discrimination on orientation or identity grounds around the world. The public opinion trends are positive worldwide: all of the major shifts from 2007 to 2013 in Pew’s “acceptance of homosexuality” poll were towards greater tolerance, and young people everywhere are more open to equality for LGBT individuals than their older peers.
Once again, these victories are partial and by no means inevitable. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination aren’t just “going away” on their own. They’re losing their hold on us because people are working to change other people’s minds and because governments are passing laws aimed at promoting equality. Positive trends don’t mean the problems are close to solved, and certainly aren’t excuses for sitting on our hands.
That’s true of everything on this list. The fact that fewer people are dying from war and disease doesn’t lessen the moral imperative to do something about those that are; the fact that people are getting richer and safer in their homes isn’t an excuse for doing less to address poverty and crime.
But too often, the worst parts about the world are treated as inevitable, the prospect of radical victory over pain and suffering dismissed as utopian fantasy. The overwhelming force of the evidence shows that to be false. As best we can tell, the reason humanity is getting better is because humans have decided to make the the better place. We consciously chose to develop lifesaving medicine and build freer political systems; we’ve passed laws against workplace discrimination and poisoning children’s minds with lead.
So far, these choices have more than paid off. It’s up to us to make sure they continue to.
This post was originally published in ThinkProgress
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