The National Urban League, a century-old civil-rights organization, this month released its annual "State of Black America" report. It noted progress among African Americans in only one area - civic engagement, reflecting increased voting rates in the 2008 election. On every other indicator - employment, income, incarceration, health and education - black Americans are as much an underclass as ever.
Yet race rarely gets talked about outside the African-American community. Mayors, governors and President Barack Obama all promote standardized testing, charter schools and teacher firings to shake up the country's underperforming education system. No one mentions race, even though white American students are near the top of the class globally. America doesn't have an education crisis: It has an inequality crisis.
"For blacks, emancipation was not a jubilee, but rather the beginning of a long season of bitter disappointment," author Edward Ball wrote this week in The New York Times. "Black national memory in some ways is still commensurate with despair."
The insecurity of many white Americans, whose demographic weight declines with each decade's census, has not helped matters. Public figures are keenly attuned to this anxiety. If there is any collective shame for having oppressed blacks for centuries, few white politicians will bear witness to it.
"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour quipped in December. He was referring to growing up in Yazoo City when the White Citizens Council thwarted desegregation.
Last year, Mr. Barbour also defended his counterpart in Virginia, who had made no mention of slavery in designating April as Confederate History Month - an omission Mr. Barbour insisted did not "amount to diddly."
Since 1892, generations of Americans have pledged allegiance to their "indivisible" nation. Yet, if the Union victory in the Civil War settled the issue of secession, it has not stopped states from asserting their sovereignty and independence from the federal government when it suits them.
The latest to raise the secession threat was Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2009. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it," he began. "But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what might come of that?" He sounded like Confederate leader Jefferson Davis circa 1861.
The rise of the Tea Party, with its visceral distrust of central government, has given renewed impetus to the states'-rights movement - a constant current in American politics, whose saliency ebbs and flows with the (dis)temper of the times.
While true secessionists remain on the fringes, outright defiance of federal authority is more common than ever. You see it in the attempt by more than two dozen states to get the Supreme Court to strike down Mr. Obama's health-care reform law. And you see it in Tea Party calls for "nullification" of federal laws by state legislatures, directly recalling South Carolina's 1832 move to void federal tariffs, a crisis that foreshadowed the Civil War.
The 10th Amendment, a rarely invoked article of the Constitution, is suddenly all the rage. It reserves for the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government. Tea Partiers and Republican governors now wave it practically every time Mr. Obama takes the podium.
Principle or pragmatism
Principled leadership is one of the reasons Abraham Lincoln is often lionized as the "greatest" American president. "In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God," the 16th president said in his second inaugural address. "Both may be and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time."
Lincoln was on the side of God in the Civil War. But, like any politician, he was often torn between doing what was right and doing what was most expedient. The Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued in late 1862, freed more than three million slaves in the Confederate states, over which Lincoln then had no control, but not the half-million slaves in the Union states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, whose affairs he could still influence. Politics won out over principle.