Jonathan Zimmerman: A Victory for America, and the World

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press).]

There will be jubilation in the streets of London and Berlin this morning. Likewise in Lagos and Bamako, Lahore and Bangkok, Lima and Bogota.

Wherever you look, it would seem, the world is celebrating Barack Obama's landslide win in Tuesday's US presidential election. To people around the globe, Obama's victory signals a new American willingness to converse with the world instead of imposing our will upon it.

At the same time, though, Obama also represents a new kind of American pre-eminence. Say it loud, my fellow Americans, and say it proud: we just became the first majority-white democracy on this planet to anoint a black person as national leader.

That's right: the first. For much of our past, the United States lagged behind the world's racial-equality curve. This week, for once, we're ahead of it. So Americans should be celebrating, too, no matter whom they supported on Tuesday.

Consider that the United States did not abolish slavery until 1865. The British Empire beat us by a half-century, outlawing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834. Pick a world power that practiced slavery, and it's likely that they ended it before we did. France? 1794. Spain? 1811. Denmark? 1848.

Ditto for other newly independent nations in the New World. Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia all abolished slavery in 1821. Mexico did the same in 1829, sparking a revolt by slave-owning ranchers in Texas. Nine years later, America's annexation of the Texan republic--as a slave state, of course--would set the stage for the Mexican-American War.

But the United States did not end slavery for another twenty years after that. And it took a bloody civil war, of course, costing at least 600,000 lives--more than the total number of Americans killed in all of our other wars, combined.

Then, let's remember, the United States established the world's most onerous and slave-like system of segregation for African-Americans. Following a brief flurry of freedom during the Reconstruction era, America denied black people basic human rights--to vote, to protest, to travel, and more--for nearly a century.

Only the apartheid regime in South Africa rivaled American segregation in its pure malice, cruelty, and pettiness. And, not surprisingly, apartheid found some of its most vocal international defenders right here in the United States.

In the Senate, especially, segregationist politicians like the recently deceased Jesse Helms praised apartheid and mocked Americans who condemned it. "Who are we to be so pious about the efforts of the South African government to stop the riots, the looting, the shooting and the mayhem that's going on over there?" Helms asked.

Well after other democracies had imposed a host of sanctions on South Africa, indeed, Helms and his fellow apologists blocked any such action by the United States. Only in 1986, amid nationwide demonstrations, would Congress override President Ronald Reagan's veto and approve economic sanctions against the apartheid regime.

So let's pause to savor this historic moment, before we forget how historic it really is. The majority-white nation with the world's worst track record on race just won the race for electing a black leader. During the presidency of George W. Bush, America was vilified for its smug arrogance and duplicity: by invading Iraq, especially, we lost our moral stewardship over a fractured and unstable globe. In choosing Barack Obama, however, the United States proved that it can still can serve as an exemplar for the rest of the world. That's a victory all of us can cheer, whether we voted for Obama or not.

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