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How America's racial disparities look to a South African who lived through apartheid

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked, to many Americans, a new start for race relations across the country. When South Africa dismantled its system of racial apartheid in the 1990s, many South Africans felt similarly hopeful about their country's future. But decades later, both countries have struggled with massive racial disparities in their criminal justice systems and police use of force.

Sean Jacobs, a New School professor who grew up under South African apartheid, spoke with PRI, in an interview you should read about in full at their site, about the similarities he sees in both countries' stories.

"At one level, it's not very different from what many poor black people in South Africa are going through right now," Jacobs said. "You have the [South African government] acting violently through the police against people protesting about the conditions under which they have to live."

In the 1990s, South Africans voted in a majority-black government with the hope that it would repair the racial disparities in the courts and criminal justice system. It's similar, in some sense, to talk of a "post-racial" society following Obama's election.

"There was all this optimism built on a false consensus of a rainbow nation in which somehow just good feelings and good intentions would get South Africa away from the structural apartheid it inherited and they'd create a new society," Jacobs argued. "But I think, in South Africa, there's a sense that it didn't work."

The lesson to draw from South Africa's struggles with race, Jacobs said, is that leadership changes aren't enough.

"You can elect a mayor like Bill de Blasio who is going to be very different from the way that Michael Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani governed," Jacobs said. "But you can't just rely on the good intentions of a mayor. You have to put systems in place and you have to enforce those laws. If you say that chokeholding is illegal and a policeman does it, you can't rely on some broken element of the justice system, the grand jury, to fix that. It's not easy to make these things happen. You have to have systems, you have to work with institutions to get them right."

Read PRI's full story on Sean Jacobs's fascinating interview here.

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