I started the year hopeful that it would be different.
Twenty-thirteen was a hard year; between the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, I didn’t think that 2014 could be worse in terms of race issues in the US.
But then it was, and then some.
Though maybe the year wasn’t actually worse; maybe this was simply the year when many of us saw for the first time how unjust things really are. Maybe this was simply the year that shook our delusions that we’re anywhere close to arriving – the year when we saw, in spite of all the progress we’ve made, just how far we are from being a society where people of all races are treated equally and fairly.
A look at the racial progress we made and lost in 2014:
– Jordan Baker, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by Houston police officer Juventino Castro. It was an ominous start to the year.*
– Lupita Nyong’o kicked off her banner year by winning an Oscar for her performance in 12 Years a Slave, complete with a beautiful, tear-jerking speech. Before the year was over, she would be crowned a style icon, become the star and producer of the film adaptation of Chimimanda Adichie’s best-seller Americanah, and earn a role in the new Star Wars film. It was the year of Lupita Nyong’o.
– TMZ released audio of Donald Sterling’s heinously racist comments to lady friend V Stiviano, and then the media uncovered even more. NBA commissioner Adam Silver swiftly banned Sterling from the NBA, fined him $2.5 million dollars, and essentially forced him to sell his team. In doing so, Silver simultaneously declared that he will not tolerate this kind of behavior and he does not mess around.
– The Atlantic published “The Case for Reparations,” an essay by senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, which broke the site’s single-day traffic records. Coates did a brilliant job of illustrating the historical and systemic injustices that have been perpetrated against black Americans in the decades since slavery. This piece should be required reading for every citizen.
– MTV released the results of a study on millennials and race. The good news, as summarized by Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “Compared to previous generations, they’re more tolerant and diverse and profess a deeper commitment to equality and fairness.” The bad news: “They’re committed to an ideal of colorblindness that leaves them uncomfortable with race, opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality, and a bit confused about what racism is.” Sigh.
– The US patent office declared that the name of the NFL team in Washington, DC is “disparaging to Native Americans” and should not be protected by trademark. Though the team has yet to change the name, this move placed a bit more pressure on them to do so. Baby steps.
– NYPD officer Daniel Pantoleo put Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold; Garner died as a result, raising more questions about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement.
– John Crawford III was shot and killed by police officers at a WalMart in Dayton, Ohio, for holding a toy gun. See previous item.
– A few days later, Renisha McBride’s killer, Theodore Wafer, was found guilty of second-degree murder. The verdict came as a relief to many who believed that he would be acquitted because McBride was black, and black lives don’t always seem to hold the same weight in court as white lives. The same sentiment resurfaced in October, when Michael Dunn was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Jordan Davis.
– A few days later, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. Long-standing tensions between the predominantly black community and the predominantly white police force erupted in days of protests and unrest.
– How to Get Away with Murder premiered on ABC, becoming Shonda Rhimes’ third hit show for ABC and the second with a woman of color in the lead.
– The show didn’t debut without controversy; a few days before the premiere, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote an article in which she repeatedly referred to Rhimes and her protagonists as angry black women. Stanley later (sort of) apologized, saying that she had intended the statement as a compliment and her critics had simply misunderstood her. (Jezebel called her article, and her subsequent non-apology, “a stupid lasagna. Just layers and layers of stupidity.”)
– black-ish debuted on ABC. In an era where characters of color on TV tend to fall on the extremes of 1. being stereotypes of their race or 2. never acknowledging their race at all, the show is a rarity, one that offers a nuanced depiction of a black family dealing with everyday family issues, including racial ones. Jane the Virgin, which premiered on the CW a few weeks later, earned similar praise for its non-stereotypical portrayal of a Latina teenager and her family.
– The police officer who killed John Crawford was not indicted. See above.
– Saturday Night Live hired its first Weekend Update anchor of color, Michael Che. The addition of a second black female cast member, Leslie Jones, followed a month later.
– President Obama nominated Loretta Lynch to be the next Attorney General. If confirmed, she’ll be the first woman of color to hold the position.
– Edward Blum and Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, claiming unlawful bias against white and Asian American applicants. While some applauded his efforts, others blasted him for exploiting Asian Americans in his quest to end affirmative action and “deprioritize campus diversity and educational access for students of color.”
– Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming.
– … but during the award presentation, Daniel Handler made a watermelon joke. (To his credit, he apologized – a real apology, not the “sorry if you were offended” non-apology that we’re used to these days – and acknowledged that his joke was racist. He also donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and matched donations up to $100,000. Good on him for fully owning his mistake.)
– President Obama signed an executive order granting temporary legal status to approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants, including 3.5 million who are parents of US citizens and have been in the country for at least 5 years.
– Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, for wielding a toy gun. See above.
– Police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, sparking further protests around the country. Reactions to the verdict were deeply divided along racial lines.
– The first trailer for next year’s Star Wars film was released. Fun: There’s a black Stormtrooper. Less fun: Internet trolls panicking over the existence of a black Stormtrooper.
– Police officer Daniel Pantoleo was not indicted for the murder of Eric Garner. Protests continued.
– The Sony hack revealed that co-chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin made racist jokes about President Obama over email. According to Entertainment Weekly, Sony has a reputation for being one of the more supportive studios in terms of black artists and productions, which made some executives wonder what was being said at other studios.
– Antonio Martin, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in Berkeley, MO — the same day that the police officer who killed Jordan Baker in January was not indicted.
– Paramount Pictures released Selma, a film about the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act. Accolades abounded, especially for David Oweloyo’s stunning performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. and for Ava DuVernay’s directing; she may be the first woman of color to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.
All told, 2014 certainly had bright spots, but it was a grim year nonetheless.
For me, the silver lining of all of these tragic events was the conversation and the awareness that they sparked about race relations; in some circles, it seemed like people started taking these issues more seriously, started examining their own biases and privilege, started thinking about how they could participate in change. These are not trivial things, so I acknowledge them with gratitude.
And in a year bracketed by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, perhaps it’s appropriate that the coda was a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. – a film that showcases not only the man’s strengths but also his vulnerabilities. The movie illustrates the humanness of the people who make social change happen, the radical action and sacrifice that this kind of change requires, and the fact that change is always the result of collective effort. These are the messages I will carry with me into 2015 as I think about how to keep pushing forward, even when I am painfully aware of how far we have yet to go.
[UPDATE: After this post was uploaded, an explosive device was detonated outside of the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Is this how it’s going to be, 2015?]
* I regret that due to space constraints, I cannot give every unarmed black person who was killed by law enforcement the space on this list that they deserve. Since a black person is killed by a cop every 3 days, there are simply too many to name in the space I have available; I refer you to this list of unarmed people of color killed by police from 1999 to 2014. I would also like to acknowledge that though news coverage this year has focused primarily on black men, police officers also routinely kill black women.