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opinion

You will be forgiven for concluding, after this week's headlines, that the past 50 years of progress on equal rights and discrimination have abruptly vanished. But this is different: These are the far tougher problems of the last lap.

Exhibit A involves race. Ferguson, Mo., is one of the 12 most racially segregated municipalities in the United States, a suburb trapped in a previous century: a black-majority population governed by an almost entirely white city hall and disciplined by an entirely white police force whose members consider it routine to fire multiple bullets into an unarmed black civilian and whose white district attorney, we learned this week, is willing to use Jim-Crow-era judicial tactics to prevent such acts being questioned in court. This is the kind of place, and the kind of situation, that half a century of civil-rights victories were supposed to have done away with.

And that's what makes this even tougher: To a notable extent, those victories worked. Today, 95 per cent of white Americans approve of interracial marriage (a key indicator of broader belief in equality); in 1968, it was 17 per cent. Likewise, 95 per cent say they'd vote for a qualified black president; half a century ago, it was less than half. Segregation has fallen sharply, and former slums are now black middle-class success stories. Black voter turnout has risen from 53 to 67 per cent (three points higher than white turnout). Black and white Americans now have nearly identical high-school graduation rates, and other health and education gaps have narrowed sharply.

The intolerant may have fallen to a slim minority. But those last holdouts are the hard cases. Ferguson may be an outlier representing 10 or 15 per cent of America – but such places and people are so resistant to change that they affect the whole country. And so not many black Americans will tell you they feel really safe or equal today. If one person in 10 or 20 wishes you ill because of your appearance, you can't say you live in a new world.

Exhibit B involves sex. The explosion of sexual-assault stories in the headlines, propelled by appalling allegations involving celebrities in the United States and Canada, are drawing attention to the persistence of sexual violence and gender discrimination in countries where, in the eyes of the law and of mainstream attitudes, those things are no longer tolerated. On the whole, they aren't: Women are now the majority in higher education everywhere. Self-reported rates of rape and sexual violence have fallen to a quarter of their 1970s level. Many feminist ideas have large majority backing.

But few women will tell you that they feel equal or unmolested. As with racial discrimination, the holdout cases of sexual discrimination and predation are the most intractable and alarming: They are the men, sometimes famous and otherwise progressive and often anonymous and unnoticed, who nevertheless harbour pathologies that drive them to acts of misogyny and abuse. They are the frat houses and sports teams where sexual abuse is considered a passing matter. They are the entertainment creators who use women as passive foils. They are the surprising number of organizations that refuse to appoint women to their boards. They are resisting the broader consensus.

In business, this is called a "last-mile problem." In many industries, it is relatively easy, after a difficult setup, to ship a chair or a car or a bunch of data from Shanghai to Winnipeg. But getting it from Winnipeg to, say, 250 Maple St. in Winnipeg is an order of magnitude harder and more expensive; this often sinks businesses.

Likewise, after several decades of extremely difficult activist struggles and hard-fought public-opinion victories, getting 80 or 90 per cent of the population to embrace the concepts of racial and sexual equality, and to stop tolerating discrimination and abuse, happened surprisingly quickly and easily. A generation came of age who were nearly unanimous in those beliefs.

But that last 5 or 10 per cent pose a set of very different challenges: These are the hard cases that actively defy majority opinion.

Economists Laurence Chandy and Homi Kharas noted recently that poverty is such a problem: Half as many people are in absolute poverty as 30 years ago, but halving the last bit will be much tougher: those "persistent pockets of poverty" are in economies and cultures far more resistant to change.

Their advice for poverty should be ours for equal rights: The last bit won't take care of itself. New movements, and new and tougher government initiatives, will be needed. It's time for a final civil-rights movement. The last mile is always the hardest, but it's also the most important.