We’ve hit the January lull: Most of us have reluctantly resumed our real lives after our New Year celebrations and are eagerly awaiting our next day off, which, for many of us, is Martin Luther King Day. (Except for those of you in the Midwest who are already enjoying a few snow days; I enviously salute you.) I’ve often been guilty of sleepwalking through this interholiday period, thinking only of how to spend the long weekend. Recently, though, I’ve started to see that this is the perfect time to reflect on what these 2 holidays commemorate: where we’ve come as a nation in terms of race and equality, and what kinds of choices we want to make in the year ahead.
So today — roughly halfway between New Year’s Day and MLK Day — seems like an appropriate time to look back on the racial progress we’ve made or erased in the last 12 months:
– In February, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin; in July, Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges. (If anyone still believes that race wasn’t a factor in this case, consider: Would Trayvon Martin be free today if the roles had been reversed? History points to no.)
– In March, Pope Francis was elected, becoming the first pope from Latin America and the first from the Southern Hemisphere. (I recognize that this is not a national thing, but it makes the list because of its seminal importance.)
– In June, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was implemented in 1965 to ensure that people of color weren’t denied the right to vote. Almost immediately after the court’s decision, states like Texas and Mississippi instituted voting laws, including ID requirements and early-voting restrictions, that disproportionally affect people of color, the poor, and the young.
– In July, Orange is the New Black debuted on Netflix. Not only did the show feature nuanced female characters of different backgrounds, but its commentary on race, both explicit and implicit, sparked conversations nationwide.
– In September, to fill the vacanies left by departing cast members, Saturday Night Live hired 6 white people, for which the show was resoundingly criticized. (No knocks to the new cast members, all of whom are talented, but how are you supposed to parody real life when your cast is so disproportionately white?) Moreover, Kenan Thompson stated that he would no longer dress in drag to portray black women — a request that was odd only in that it came in 2013 and not 1963.
– … but, on Monday, SNL hired its first black female cast member in 7 years, bringing its person-of-color count to 4 of 17. ‘Bout time. Next up, it’s time for some Latino, Asian American, and Native American cast members so Bobby Moynihan isn’t the default to play Psy.
– In October, Cory Booker was elected senator of New Jersey, bringing the total number of African American senators to 2.
– In November, we got a film that accurately depicted the horrors of slavery in 12 Years a Slave. It’s probably not a coincidence that it took 2 Brits — director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor — to provide a realistic, unvarnished portrayal of this heinous part of our history.
– Celebrities made glaring missteps (and often went on the defensive afterwards): Paula Deen; the Big Brother contestant who offended pretty much everyone (and CBS, equally culpable for failing to address her statements in any constructive way); Julianne Hough going out for Halloween in blackface; Katy Perry performing in yellowface at the VMAs (to anyone who still doesn’t think that was racist: How did you react when you saw that Julianne Hough went out for Halloween in blackface? Well, Katy Perry did the same thing).
– There were rich, complex leading roles for African American actors. We saw stunning performances from Ejiofor and his co-star Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station, and Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels’ the Butler, to name a few.
– … but still not a ton for other people of color. The notable exception being Mindy Kaling, who is showrunning, writing, and starring in the funniest show on network television. But otherwise?
– TV shows with diverse casts are becoming the norm (Parks and Recreation, the Mindy Project, the Colbert Report, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scandal, the Walking Dead, Glee…)
– … but hackneyed, degrading stereotypes aren’t dead yet. I’m looking at you, 2 Broke Girls and Dads.
When I look back at the last 12 months in a nutshell like this, I see signs of progress and glimmers of hope — but I’m also astounded by the setbacks, in particular the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial and the Supreme Court decision. I walk around thinking that our society is so much farther along than it is, but then I’m reminded that, no, apparently a black male can still be accused of looking suspicious simply for being black, apparently it’s still possible for a white person to get away with killing a person of color, apparently there are people in power who think that institutionalized racism is a thing of the past. And while the wins are encouraging (Cory Booker in the Senate! Sasheer Zamata on SNL!), when I look at the numbers (of African American senators, of people of color on SNL), I wonder how they can still be so low in 2014.
So in this January lull, I mourn the disappointments we’ve seen in the last 12 months. But ultimately, I can choose between hope and despair, and while hope may disappoint from time to time, despair won’t move us forward. So I will choose hope. I will celebrate the victories, because they are important. I will use the setbacks as reminders of the education, the advocacy, the work that still needs to be done this year and in the years to come. I will remember the words of Dr. King and join those who are pushing toward the vision he laid out for us, even as we trip and fall all over ourselves along the way.
Here’s to a fruitful year.