Most American high school students graduate without learning a complete history of race relations in our country. Unfortunately, summer vacation arrives before most history teachers have made it past the 60s or 70s in the textbook and the last thing most students have learned is that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement broke down the Jim Crow system of segregation, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and that we celebrate Black History Month each February to mark the achievements of great African Americans. Little or no mention is made of the urban riots in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the emotional trial of OJ Simpson, the election of Barack Obama, or challenges to voting rights in the past decade. This is unfortunate, because race relations are an important element in our current national discourse.
It is forgivable that people might think the days of racial division are over. After all, we elected an African American president. In fact, after Obama’s election, some commentators began talking about a post-racial America in which we no longer see color. They thought or hoped that we had arrived at the “promised land” Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about and envisioned when he described his dream for the nation. A quick glance at the news tells us that that is not true. From police shootings to Black Lives Matter protests to football players kneeling during the national anthem there is abundant evidence that race still plays an important role in America. But, those who are hopeful still wonder: Does it always have to be this way?
What do you think? Will there ever be a post-racial America?
Despite important legal achievements and the election of an African American president, America remains a deeply racially divided nation. Evidence of continued divisions can also be found in demographics. For instance, African-Americans account for less than 14% of the total population of the state of Michigan, but more than 78% of the population of Detroit, the state’s largest city.
Dozens of cities across the North and West repeat Detroit’s model. During the Great Migration 100 years ago, African Americans from the South flocked to the North in search of jobs and to escape prejudice. Although life in the North was an improvement for many, the people they met were not universally welcoming and urban ghettos developed as African Americans were concentrated into segregated neighborhoods. The lack of opportunities and poverty in these neighborhoods were primary factors that fueled the frustration that has repeatedly boiled over into violence. They are the same factors that drive young people toward gang life and drug use, two problems stereotypically associated with African American urban neighborhoods. This is nothing new in African American life. The Kerner Commission reported on this situation in 1968.
In the 1980s when cities began to struggle as manufacturing jobs moved overseas, White residents moved to the suburbs, leaving mostly African American residents behind in the urban core. This phenomenon was so widespread that it got a name: White Flight. In short, segregation continues, not necessarily because laws dictate that Americans of different races must live apart from one another, but because systemic factors like redlining or hiring practices have made integration unlikely.
There are important consequences of this ongoing segregation. Because American schools are mostly neighborhood-based, they remain mostly segregated. In 2012, researchers at UCLA found that 15% of African American students, and 14% of Hispanic students, attend schools where Whites make up 0 to 1% of the enrollment. While this sort of racial separation is common for African American students in northern cities like Chicago and New York it is also common for Hispanic students in Los Angeles.
There is a similar dynamic in the South. About 62% of the population of Louisiana is White, but its largest city, New Orleans, is 59% African American. Like other major urban areas, the neighborhoods of New Orleans are further segregated. The Lower Ninth Ward, for example, is 90% African American.
Many have criticized civic leaders for taking care of mostly White neighborhoods first, and using what is left of tax dollars to provide services for minority neighborhoods. Parks, roads and trash collection is often better in predominantly White neighborhoods. A glaring example of this was in Flint, Michigan in 2014, where White state officials changed the source of the city’s drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less costly Flint River. Due to insufficient water treatment, lead leached from water pipes into the drinking water, exposing over 100,000 mostly African American residents to elevated lead levels.
New Orleans provides another example. The Lower Ninth Ward experienced the most catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and class was a major factor in who survived the disaster. Those who lived in areas better protected from flooding, and those who were able to evacuate before the storm, tended to be wealthier and Whiter. At the time, President George W. Bush acknowledged that this poverty had “roots in the history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunities of America”.
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Senator Barack Obama announcing his candidacy for president in 2007. Obama went on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and then John McCain in the general election. He won reelection in 2012, serving eight years as the nation’s first African American president.
Barack Obama was a Baby Boomer and was elected in 2008 by Baby Boomer voters who had grown up during the Civil Rights Movement. For many, it was a dream come true. As teenagers and young adults they had lived through the turbulent 1960s and had fought for equal rights. Finally, it seemed, as adults the goals they had worked so hard for had come true. They saw the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and his election in 2008 as the first African American president of the United States as a sign that the nation had, in fact, become post-racial. The conservative radio host Lou Dobbs, for example, said in November 2009, “We are now in a 21st Century post-partisan, post-racial society.” Two months later, Chris Matthews of MSNBC revealed just how much Americans wished that that to be true, while at the same time showing that it was not when he said of President Obama, “He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”
President Obama actively promoted the idea that America was overcoming its divided past. His keynote speech at the 2002 Democratic National Convention has been widely regarded as the moment that propelled him to the national stage. In that address he said, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
However, public opinion on whether the United States had indeed moved past its old divisions and become post-racial is itself divided starkly by race. A Pew Research Center poll in 2020 showed that 86% of African Americans thought the nation had not yet made enough progress on racial equality, however only 39% of Whites agreed. 60% of all Whites thought the nation had done enough or gone too far in seeking racial equality, whereas only 11% of African Americans agreed.
Obama himself understood that some wanted his presidency to mean the end of racial division. But he also knew that his historic election was not going to be the final chapter in the nation’s long struggle for racial justice.
During the 2008 campaign, he directly addressed the issue of race in one of his most famous speeches, entitled A More Perfect Union. He said, “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy… But I have asserted a firm conviction… that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care and better schools and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans…”
During his presidency, Obama was alternately criticized for spending too much time working to help African Americans, or not taking advantage of his eight years in the White House to adequately address their concerns. In the end, President Obama’s civil rights legacy is mixed. Sentencing reform and the end of long jail terms for drug offenders has been tremendously important. Perhaps, however, his greatest impact will simply be the fact that he was president at all. One should not underestimate the power of a positive role model. If Obama could be president, why should any African American child doubt that he or she too, could be president one day?
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Arguments that the United States is not post-racial frequently emphasize the treatment of African-Americans and other racial minorities in the criminal justice system and in interactions with the police. In 2015, according to a study by The Guardian newspaper, young African American men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.
Killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers exploded as a public issue during Obama’s presidency. For African Americans, violence at the hands of White police officers was nothing new. After all, the beating of Rodney King in 1991 was famous because it was captured on video, not because it was unusual.
However, as cell phones with video cameras and social media became widespread during Obama’s presidency, so did videos of killings and beatings of African Americans by White law enforcement officers. Such killings had a marked effect on public attitudes. By 2020, the number of Americans who rated race relations as the nation’s most important problem rose to the highest it has been since the 1960s.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement grew up with social media and is an ongoing effort by African Americans to bring awareness to their concerns, affect police reform, and seek justice. Although BLM claims inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, Pan-Africanism, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, hip hop, LGBTQ social movements, and Occupy Wall Street, it is in fact distinct in important ways. The BLM leaders and protesters are young. They do not share the same ideas, experiences, and values as the older Baby Boomer Generation of African American leaders. They have an aversion to middle-class traditions such as church involvement, Democratic Party loyalty, and respectability politics. They do not have a single unifying leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. BLM protesters are from Generation X, and they look, sound, think and act line Gen X. The term Black Lives Matter itself, was born in a truly Gen X way: it was a hashtag.
THE OBAMA YEARS
As cell phone cameras and social media became more sophisticated during Obama’s presidency, so too did Americans’ awareness of violence against unarmed African American men. To understand both the problem and how the movement grew, we can look more closely at some of these events. By no means is this a comprehensive list of violence against African American, but rather a discussion of some of the events that proved to be the most consequential.
The death that launched the hashtag and the movement was the killing of Treyvon Martin in Florida. On the night of February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman was patrolling his gated neighborhood. Although not a police officer, Zimmerman had volunteered to serve as a member of a citizen’s watch group and was carrying a gun. That night he encountered Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American high school student who was visiting his relatives and had gone out to buy some candy. Zimmerman approached Martin and they had some sort of fight. Although Martin was unarmed, Zimmerman shot and killed him. In the trial afterward Zimmerman, who had not been injured, claimed self-defense. Florida has a stand-your-ground law that allows people to use deadly force when they feel threatened, and even though Martin had not had any weapons and was only a teenager when Zimmerman shot him, Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.
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Treyvon Martin was only 17 when he was killed on his way home from a convenience store in Florida in 2012. His death marked the start of the modern campaign to bring attention to the killing of unarmed African American men and boys.
The death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 resulted in one of the movement’s most potent slogans. According to bystanders, including a friend of Garner, who recorded the incident on his cell phone, Garner had just broken up a fight, which may have drawn the attention of the police. When a police officer approached Garner from behind and attempted to handcuff him, Garner pulled his arms away, saying “Don’t touch me, please.” The officer then put Garner in a chokehold from behind as other officers swarmed in. After 15 seconds, the video showed that the officer had let go of Garner’s neck but then used his hands to push his face into the sidewalk. Garner is heard saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk. Garner lay motionless, handcuffed, and unresponsive for several minutes before an ambulance arrived. According to police, Garner had a heart attack while being transported to Richmond University Medical Center. He was pronounced dead at the hospital one hour later.
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A protester at a rally in Virginia. “I Can’t Breathe” were Eric Garner’s last words and “I can’t breathe, mama” were some of George Floyd’s last words.
A grand jury decided not to indict the officer who had originally wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck. After the announcement, citizens in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC and Baltimore, Minneapolis, Berkeley, Atlanta and even London gathered in protest. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, have now become a common chant against police brutality.
On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The exact nature of their initial encounter is debated, but after some sort of altercation, Brown began to run away with Wilson in pursuit. Wilson stated that Brown stopped and charged him, but Brown’s friend who was there as well contradicted this account, stating that Brown turned around with his hands raised after Wilson shot at his back. According to the friend, Wilson then shot Brown multiple times. Other officers from the Ferguson Police Department were on the scene within minutes, as were crowds of residents, some expressing hostility toward the police. Brown’s body was covered with sheets by paramedics, but police were widely criticized for leaving him on the road for four hours before taking him away. Many saw this delay as demeaning and disrespectful.
Already before Brown’s death, residents of Ferguson had reason to distrust and dislike their police department. As is the case in many predominantly African American cities, the police department had hired mostly White officers who lived in surrounding towns. A subsequent investigation found that the police department regularly pulled over African American drivers for minor infractions such as broken tail lights. The resulting tickets produced an important part of the money the city received to support its budget. In effect, city officials were taxing African American citizens through traffic tickets. Additionally, police departments in many places have had an antagonistic relationship with African American citizens for generations, stemming from their role in enforcing Jim Crow segregation laws.
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The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown. The police were criticized for using militarized tactics against the demonstrators including armored vehicles and tear gas.
Michael Brown’s death ignited unrest in Ferguson. Protesters used the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot” in both peaceful and violent protests that lasted for more than a week. Media and politicians criticized the Ferguson and other area police agencies for their militarized response. As part of the War on Terror after the September 11 Attacks, many police forces had used money given to them by the federal government to combat terrorism to purchase riot shields, tear gas, body armor, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles. Now the Ferguson protesters were facing off with people who looked like an army, rather than police officers.
A few months after Brown’s death, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for murder. A separate Department of Justice investigation cleared Wilson of civil rights violations in the shooting. They concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Instead of providing a sense of justice and peace, the message many minority communities heard was: police officers could use the cover of their badge to kill African Americans without consequences.
Three months after Michael Brown’s death, media attention was again transfixed, this time by a shooting in Cleveland, Ohio. Two police officers had responded to a police dispatch call of an African American male that “keeps pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people” at a local recreation center. When officers arrived at the park they shot and killed the suspect.
The victim turned out to be Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old and his gun was an airsoft replica that lacked the orange-tipped barrel which would have indicated it was an air gun. A surveillance video of the incident was released by police four days later showing that the police had shot and killed Rice immediately after getting out of their car, had not provided any sort of first aid for at least four minutes, and when his sister tried to run to him about two minutes after the shooting they tackled, handcuffed and put her in the police car. The next year, prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers, claiming that it appeared Rice was pulling an actual gun out from under his shirt when he was killed. Protesters have pointed to Rice’s death as evidence that police officers too often jump to conclusions about African Americans rather than relying on evidence and making reasonable judgements. Furthermore, they point out that the case of the police shooting a 12-year-old, in addition to the shooting of Trayvon Martin is evidence that too many Americans associate African American men and boys with danger, no matter how young they are.
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The death of Freddie Gray launched protests that turned violent in Baltimore, Maryland. Eventually the National Guard was brought to the city to restore order. Baltimore has been one of the nation’s most deeply segregated cities.
In 2015, Freddie Gray, Jr., a 25-year-old man, was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department for possessing what the police alleged was an illegal knife. While being transported in a police van, Gray fell into a coma and was taken to a trauma center where he later died. The circumstances of the injuries were initially unclear. Eyewitness accounts suggested that the officers involved used unnecessary force against Gray during the arrest which was denied by all officers involved. The police commissioner reported that, contrary to department policy, the officers did not secure him inside the van while driving to the police station. The medical investigation found that Gray had sustained the injuries to his spine while in transport, and the Maryland state attorney announced that her office had filed charges against six police officers. Although African Americans across the country praised the state attorney for bringing charges against the officers, none of them were found guilty. The case against the first officer ended in a mistrial, three were found not guilty by their juries, and the charges against the remaining officers were dropped.
Gray’s hospitalization and subsequent death resulted in a series of protests. A major protest in downtown Baltimore turned violent, resulting in 34 arrests and injuries to 15 police officers. After Gray’s funeral, civil disorder intensified with looting and burning of local businesses and a CVS drug store, culminating with the governor declaring a state of emergency and the deployment of the National Guard to Baltimore to restore order.
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A moment from the video of the intervention at the McKinney pool party in 2015.
The Black Lives Matter movement has protested dozens of killings of unarmed African American men, but protesters have also highlighted other acts of police violence and disrespect. The McKinney pool party incident in 2015 is one example. That year, at a pool party in a gated McKinney, Texas, community, a police officer recorded violently restraining Dajerria Becton, a 15-year-old African American girl. He later drew his handgun, evidence many protesters believe of how quickly officers resort to deadly force when working with African American citizens, regardless of their age, gender, or whether or not they are armed. The officer shown in the video was placed on administrative leave and later resigned.
In 2015, #BlackLivesMatter was joined by the #SayHerName campaign. This was an effort to bring attention to female victims of police brutality and was a response to the emphasis the Black Lives Matter movement and the media had placed on male victims. Of the dozens of victims the #SayHerName campaign has tried to bring attention to, perhaps most famous is Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT. Police had suspected that Taylor’s boyfriend was receiving drugs in the mail at Taylor’s apartment and after midnight, three police officers dressed in plain clothes knocked on Taylor’s door before forcing entry using a battering ram. The officers claimed that they announced they were police, but 11 of 12 neighbors interviewed by the New York Times said they heard them say, “police.” Fearing that their house was being invaded, Taylor’s boyfriend called 911 and then got his gun and fired at the people he thought were intruders. In the resulting firefight Taylor was killed. The police never searched for the drugs they had suspected were at the apartment. Afterward the police were criticized for their tactics. Many felt that they unnecessarily incited the deadly exchange. One of the officers was charged for endangering the White family who lived next door. None were charged with any crimes related to Taylor’s death.
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Breonna Taylor was an EMT in Kentucky. Her death when police raided her apartment inspired the #SayHerName campaign to bring attention to African American women killed by police.
Another women the #SayHerName movement has brought attention to Sandra Bland who was pulled over for failing to use her turn signal when changing lanes. She was arrested and was found hanged three days later in her jail cell. Subsequent investigations found that the police making the traffic stop and the corrections officers at the jail had failed to follow procedures, including failing to check on the inmates regularly and allowing Bland access to marijuana. In 2017, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act which mandates training for officers in how to de-escalate conflicts and how to work with people with substance abuse or mental health issues.
In addition to nationwide protest days, the movement gained the support of the WNBA. Players dedicated their 2020 season to “long history of inequality, implicit bias and racism that disproportionately impacts communities of color.” The first weekend of their season the players wore jerseys honoring Breonna Taylor and the #SayHerName movement. The WNBA and the NBA unified to postpone two days of games as well to bring public attention to violence against African American women.
THE CONFEDERATE FLAG
The Confederate battle flag from the Civil War is a potent symbol of racism and White supremacy. Although its use died out after the Civil War ended in 1865, the flag was reintroduced as an element of the Georgia state flag in 1956 just two years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public school. It was also raised at the University of Mississippi during protests against integration and added to multiple southern state flags, including the flag of South Carolina.
While some White Southerners associate the Confederate battle flag with pride in their heritage and traditions, for many outsiders it is impossible to separate the flag from its association with the defense of slavery and racism. Southern historian Gordon Rhea wrote in 2011 that, “It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals: ‘that the negro is not equal to the white man’. The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizable segment of its population?”
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The Charleston Church Shooting launched protests aimed at removing symbols of the old Confederacy, especially the Confederate battle flag from government buildings and monuments.
While debate over displays of the Confederate flag simmered for years, they were brought to national attention in 2015 when a 21-year-old White supremacist murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. The morning after the attack, police arrested the shooter who confessed to carrying out the attack in the hope of igniting a race war.
Because the murderer, who was sentenced to life in prison, had espoused racial hatred in both a website manifesto published before the shooting and a journal written from jail afterwards, and because photographs posted on the website showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag, the shooting triggered a public debate and widespread public protests about the continued use of the flag.
Shortly after the shooting and after intense public pressure, the South Carolina General Assembly voted to remove the flag from a memorial on the State Capitol grounds. In 2016, the United States House of Representatives voted to ban the display of Confederate flags on flagpoles at Veterans Administration cemeteries. The author of the amendment was California congressman Jared Huffman, who stated that the flag represented “racism, slavery and division.” In 2016, Republicans in Congress attempted to reverse the flag ban but their bill was blocked by Democrats.
SPORTS AND POPULAR CULTURE
Protests regarding racial division have spilled over into many areas of life. In 2015, a Facebook post by the University of Missouri’s student government president Payton Head described bigotry and anti-gay sentiment around the college campus. He claimed that in an incident off campus, unidentified people in the back of a passing pickup truck taunted him with racial slurs. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.” An incident involving a drunken student gave rise to more racial tensions. While an African-American student group was preparing for homecoming, a White student walked on stage and was asked to leave. Supposedly, while departing the premises the student said, “These niggers are getting aggressive with me.” Student protests resulted, calling for the university chancellor to resign for not having done enough to address racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice on campus. The protesters gained an enormous ally when the school’s football players announced they would not practice or play until the chancellor resigned, potentially costing the university a $1 million fine if they had to forfeit an upcoming game. The chancellor resigned.
The National Football League has been another aspect of the world of sports where African American players have used their influence as national stars to make public statements about racism. Beginning in 2016, some athletes have protested against police brutality and racism by kneeling during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner.
The protests became widely known in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem. Throughout the following seasons, members of various NFL and other sports teams have engaged in similar silent protests. Eric Reid explained their intentions in Twitter writing, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” Torrey Smith, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, added in an interview, “I understand why people are offended by people protesting the National Anthem. My father served 25 years. When he dies, he’s going to be wrapped in an American flag. But my dad is also out of the Army, and he drives trucks all over the country, and he’s a black man everywhere he goes, and sometimes he has racial incidents still today. That doesn’t protect him, just because he served our country. And I think that’s important.” In 2017, the NFL protests became more widespread when over 200 players sat or knelt in response to President Donald Trump’s calling for owners to “fire” the protesting players.
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Members of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers kneel during the playing of the national anthem before a football game. This particular form of protest was first noticed by the national media when Colin Kaeparnick knelt in 2016.
Americans are divided on the intended meaning of the anthem and the player protests. Some believe the anthem salutes military and police officers who have died on duty. For others, it honors the United States generally. A 2020 poll found that 52% of Americans felt that it was ok for the players to kneel during the anthem. However, opinion was divided as only 20% of Republican respondents agreed.
Superstar Beyoncé sent a political message in her own way during her performance at America’s most-watched event: the Super Bowl. When she performed her single Formation at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016, she and her backup dancers wore all black outfits, and she incorporated the Black Power salute made famous by Olympic runners in 1968 into the choreography. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani accused the performance of being anti-police, saying, “This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive.”
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Beyoncé’s performance at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show bore similarities to the Black Power salute that made some Americans proud and others uneasy.
THE RACIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT DURING THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
The election of President Trump in 2016 marked a shift in the modern movement for racial justice on the part of both the Black Lives Matter movement and related efforts. Trump himself had entered the political world spreading the myth that President Obama had not been born in the United States. Birtherism as this lie was called, was an effort to undermine the legitimacy of Obama’s historic presidency. Although not invented by Trump, he used his influence as a television celebrity and later candidate and president to repeat it. In addition to birtherism, Trump was infamous for other dog whistle phrases that signaled to racist Americans his ideas in ways he could deny when challenged. In his own tweets, or messages he retweeted, he disparaged countries with majority non-White populations and wondered why America did not have more immigrants from Norway, a nation that is almost entirely White. Black Lives Matter leaders had campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and in both the campaign and as president, Trump criticized the movement.
One of the most clear demonstrations of racist sentiment in America occurred in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Various alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, White nationalists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and right-wing militia groups gathered for the Unite the Right rally. Some groups carried torches, weapons, Confederate battle flags, Nazi symbols and posters proclaiming their racist ideas. As they marched they chanted slogans such as “White lives matter” and “You will not replace us.” The organizers wanted to prevent the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville and unify the American white nationalist movement overall. Participation with these groups had been growing during the 2010s, in part as a reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency and because new social media platforms helped organize and recruit members.
The white supremacists were met in Charlottesville by thousands of counter-protesters from multiple groups, including many local residents who wanted to show that their town did not support such racist ideas. By the second day of the rally, the state governor declared a state of emergency, stating that the police were no longer able to keep the peace and needed the help of the national guard. The Virginia State Police declared the rally to be unlawful and tried to close it down. That afternoon, one of the White supremacists rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people.
The Unite the Right rally proved to be the low point of President Donald Trump’s popularity as a result of what he told the press when they asked for his response to the event. Trump replied by condemning “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides”. When asked to explain what he meant, he defended himself and said that there were “very fine people on both sides”. While the president’s most ardent supporters denied that he had ill intentions, many Americans felt that Trump’s comments revealed that he saw the white supremacists and the counter-protesters as morally equivalent. White supremacist groups celebrated publicly what they saw as support from the White House.
As of 2021, the most significant of all the events of the current racial justice movement has been the protests in the summer of 2020. The event that launched the protests was the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who died when a Minneapolis Police Department officer knelt on his neck for over nine minutes as three other officers prevented onlookers from intervening.
Within hours, protests began as people learned about what had happened and saw videos posted on social media. From the location of Floyd’s death, protests quickly spread nationwide and to over 2,000 cities and towns. Despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 15 to 26 million people participated at some point in the demonstrations in the United States, making them the largest in the nation’s history. Inspired by the marches in the United States, people also gathered in over 60 countries around the world.
While the majority of protests were peaceful, demonstrations in some cities escalated into riots, looting, and street fighting with police and counter-protesters. Some police responded to protests with instances of notable violence, including against reporters. At least 200 cities imposed curfews, while more than 30 states and Washington, D.C. activated the National Guard or employed the military to preserve order. Although more than 90% of the protests around the country were peaceful, arson, vandalism, and looting caused over $1 billion in damage, surpassing the record set in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.
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A rally in Philadelphia during the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
President Trump staked out a position against the protests and strongly in favor of the police, further antagonizing many young voters who overwhelmingly support the racial justice movement. Early in the protests President Trump posted on Twitter, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to [Minnesota] Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” The tweet was flagged by Twitter for violating its policy against glorifying violence. Within days other top administration officials were echoing the president’s law-and-order message. Attorney General Barr noted that “law enforcement response is not going to work unless we dominate the streets” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “we need to dominate the battlespace.”
When protesters outside the White House grounds threw objects at Secret Service agents and pulled down temporary fencing, then crossed barricades near the Treasury Department more than 60 Secret Service agents were injured. As a precaution the Secret Service placed the White House on lockdown and moved Trump and his family to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, an underground bunker. The president spent almost an hour in the bunker until security was restored outside the White House.
Media coverage of the event enraged Trump, who felt it gave the impression he was hiding during the protests. To recapture public support, he decided to stage a photo op at St. John’s Church across the street. Police officers in riot gear used tear gas to forcefully clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square and surrounding streets around the White House, creating a path for President Donald Trump and senior administration officials to walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Trump held up a Bible and posed for a photo op in front of Ashburton House, which is part of the church complex and had been damaged by a fire during protests the night before. The clearing of demonstrators from Lafayette Square was widely condemned as excessive and an affront to the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly. Military leaders, religious leaders, and elected officials from both parties condemned Trump for the event. Along with his response to the Unite the Right rally, it was one of the low points in his popularity as president.
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President Trump’s photo op in front of the Ashburton House of the St. John’s Episcopal Church. His decision to have to police use force to clear peaceful protesters so he could take the photo damaged his popularity with voters.
The protests propelled the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice issues onto the front pages of newspapers around the world and sparked a national conversation about how to stop police violence. Anti-police sentiment began to take a toll on local police forces. Feeling attacked by both protesters and many politicians, police officers began retiring in large numbers. In New York City, there was a 411% increase in officers applying to retire. In other places, police officers walked off the job when they felt city leaders were unfairly attacking them. Support for the protest began to ebb in the later part of 2020 in part because some leaders began calls to defund the police. While this term does not have any specific definition, it sounds extreme to many Americans, especially those who favor a law-and-order message and who were disturbed by the violent aspect of the protests. Alternatively, supporters of police reform argue the past efforts have been ineffective and a more extreme makeover of policing in America is required to root out problems that originate from decades past when police forces were responsible for enforcing the Jim Crow system. Some argue that problems that have led to violent interactions between police and citizens could be better solved by professionals from social service agencies. They think that defunding the police is about shifting tax money away from law enforcement and toward social services such as housing, substance abuse treatment or mental health care.
Some critics accuse Black Lives Matter of being anti-police. In response, a counter movement named Blue Lives Matter has emerged in support of law enforcement officers who clearly have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job to do. The Thin Blue Line Flag was created as a symbol of support for police.
Former New York City Mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that Black Lives Matter is “inherently racist” and called the movement anti-American. According to Giuliani, the BLM movement divides people and exacerbates racial tensions. His perspective has gained support among many conservatives who think that America is not fundamentally racist, that systemic racism is not as deep a problem as it has been made out to be in the media, and that ongoing protests and attention paid to police violence serve to divide Americans rather than heal tensions.
Primary Source: Photograph
The Washington, DC mayor renamed a section of 16th Street near the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza and had the words painted on the road.
The protests had widespread consequences. The Georgia legislature voted to change the design of their state flag. Georgia was the last state to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into its design. The military banned displays of the Confederate flag on any base, ship, cemetery, memorial, or battlefield site. NASCAR banned the flag for its racing events. Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat changed their names or packaging to remove depictions of African Americans that incorporated historical stereotypes. The online game Fortnite removed police cars and hundreds of racial slurs were taken out of the official Scrabble dictionary. Over a dozen high schools abandoned nicknames like Rebels, Redskins, or Indians. Animated shows such as The Simpsons, Central Park and Family Guy replaced White actors who had been voicing non-White characters. Netflix and other streaming services pulled movies and episodes with racist jokes or offensive themes. Dozens of schools, museums, streets, parks and other public places were renamed so as not to honor people who participated in the Confederacy or were connected with slavery. The Washington, DC mayor renamed the street across from St. John’s Church and the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza and painted those words in giant letters on the road.
Criticism of the officers who had first tried to arrest George Floyd was widespread among police forces across the country, even if some of those police chiefs and officers were not fully supportive of the protests that followed. Numerous reforms were initiated, most notably bans on the kind of choke holds that killed Floyd. Training programs to help officers learn strategies to de-escalate conflicts and bans of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets have been initiated. The use of body cameras to record police activities has become far more common and some cities have begun using other professionals to respond to non-violent problems such as homeless complaints and neighborhood disputes. More officers are beginning to be trained and assigned to community policing, a practice in which officers get out of their patrol cars to talk with citizens and participate in activities such as youth sports leagues in order to develop relationships with the people they serve.
In the end, the four police officers who had participated in the arrest and murder of George Floyd were themselves arrested. In April 2021, the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck was found guilty, a rare outcome in cases of police violence. The trials for the three other officers are scheduled for August of 2021.
The racial justice movement has begun to expand beyond the concerns of African Americans to encompass other marginalized groups as well. During the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans became targets of violence. Anti-Asian sentiment is not new, as far back as the middle of the 1800s violence and punitive laws against Chinese immigrants was common. In fact, immigration for China was banned entirely in 1882. During World War II prejudice was so strong against Japanese Americans that President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the mass internment of this entire group of people.
Because the coronavirus pandemic originated in China, some Americas took out their frustration against anyone they believed was of Asian ancestry. A study by NBC News found that there was a 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, especially concentrated in New York, Boston and Los Angeles but the pattern was common across the country. Many criticized President Trump for fanning the prejudice that fueled this rise by insisting on using phrases like “Wuhan Virus” and “China Virus” and by claiming, without evidence, that the Chinese government had intentionally synthesized and released the virus.
Unlike the problem the Black Lives Matter movement has sought to address, most anti-Asian hate crimes are not perpetrated by police officers. Additionally, the victims were people of all walks of life. For example, a man went out for a run and two women spit at him and told him to “go back to China.” A 52-year-old woman was attacked on a city bus by teenagers who accused her of spreading the virus. A 65-year-old Filipino woman was attacked near Times Square in broad daylight by a man who was making anti-Asian comments.
The most egregious of all these attacks was the murder of eight workers at three spas or massage parlors in the Atlanta area in March of 2021. Six of the victims were Asian American women. The perpetrator, a 21-year-old man claimed that he was struggling with sexual addiction. The targeting of Asian women as objects of obsession is not new in America, and the attack, in addition to other events, helped spur Asian American and Pacific Islander groups to organize marches and online campaigns to address the problem. The phrase Stop AAPI Hate joined the various slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Primary Source: Photograph
Protests against anti-Asian prejudice and violence became part of the racial justice movement during the coronavirus pandemic.
The idea that America is post-racial or close to it has played a role in at least one United States Supreme Court decision. In Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the court invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had required nine states with particularly severe histories of racial discrimination to obtain approval from the federal Justice Department for any change to their election laws. The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said in part, “Our country has changed.” It added that in the decades since the Voting Rights Act was passed, “voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.” In short, the Court found that the evidence suggested racial discrimination in voting practices had ended and therefore the Voting Rights Act was unnecessary.
Shortly after the ruling, state legislatures controlled by Republican majorities began passing laws they claimed were intended to stop voter fraud such as voting twice or claiming to be someone else when voting. Democrats and minority rights advocates point out that incidents of voter fraud are almost nonexistent in the United States, and that the true intention of these laws is to voter suppression, an effort to disenfranchise minority and lower income voters. After the 2020 presidential election and President Trump’s lie that he did not really lose, Republican state governments intensified these efforts.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon comments on both the long lines some voters have faced on Election Day when many people have to vote in one place, and the long history of disenfranchisement African Americans have faced in America.
The most common laws require voters to show identification. These voter ID laws seem like common sense to many, but they affect voters who do not normally maintain driver’s licenses, or move frequently and do not have accurate identification. In conjunction with voter identification laws, states began limiting access to offices were citizens can obtain the required documents. In Alabama, the Republican-controlled state government closed DMV offices in eight of ten counties which had the highest percentage African American population, but only three in the ten counties with the lowest percentage. The specific types of identification required also have been in contention. In 2016, a federal appeals court found that Texas’s voter ID law discriminated against African American and Hispanic voters because only a few types of ID were allowed. For example, military IDs and concealed carry gun permits were allowed, but state employee photo IDs and university photo IDs were not.
Running elections is expensive, and Republicans who claim to want to save money have closed down polling stations, often in minority neighborhoods. They also have stopped early voting which provides opportunities to vote for people who cannot get out of work on Election Day. Some have proposed making Election Day a national holiday or moving our elections to a Saturday.
Other laws ban convicted felons from voting. Since minorities make up the bulk of incarcerated Americans, this disproportionately affects minority voters.
Perhaps the greatest threat to voting access is simply the closing of polling places. Since 2013, hundreds of polling places across the South have been shut down completely. Ostensibly an effort to save money, critics note that the closing of polling places results in longer distances needed to travel and longer lines waiting to vote. When polling places are closed in minority neighborhoods, the effect is a reduction of minority voters.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic in 2015 that the phrase post-racial was “usually employed by talk-show hosts and news anchors looking to measure progress in the Obama era.” And Anna Holmes wrote in The New York Times, “Chattel slavery and the legacies it left behind continue to shape American society. Sometimes it seems as if the desire for a ‘post-racial’ America is an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with that legacy.”
However, others argue that post-racial politics is not about never seeing race, but about being a champion of aggressive action to deliver economic opportunity and weed out police misconduct. They argue that when the media amplifies division, it makes racial healing and justice more difficult. Because events demonstrating racial harmony are dismissed as non-newsworthy, they would say the media’s emphasis on conflict undermines trust and impedes progress.
So, our question could be answered in multiple ways. Do you think that we have arrived at a time when we no longer see race? Or, have we arrived at a time when we can see through the media’s obsession with division and can work together on justice for all? Alternatively, do you think we have not achieved either of those goals? In that case, how should we define a post-racial America?
What do you think? Will there ever be a post-racial America?
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BIG IDEA: During the 2010s the Black Lives Matter movement emerged as a response to police violence against African American men. The movement expanded as events brought a wide variety of problems facing minority communities to the nation’s attention. Despite the election of the first African American president, the past decade shows how divided and unequal America remains.
Even after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, America remains a racially segregation nation. People tend to live in communities with other people of their same race. In some places such as Flint, Michigan or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, White community leaders have been accused of harming African American neighborhoods by neglecting to provide proper services.
Barack Obama was elected in 2008 as the first African American president. In the beginning, he encouraged people to think that the nation was moving past its divided past, but later he explicitly dealt with race in speeches.
During Obama’s presidency, new cell phone cameras and social media made evidence of shootings of unarmed African Americans common and the Black Lives Matter movement grew to bring attention to this ongoing problem. Protests took place after numerous shootings. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland turned violent and were met with police using military equipment and tactics.
A shooting in an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina by a White nationalist led to a movement to remove symbols of the Confederacy, especially the old Confederate battle flag and statues of Confederate soldiers.
Athletes have supported these protests by kneeling during the national anthem. Beyoncé protested by using Black Power symbolism during her performance at the Super Bowl.
Other groups such as African American women and Asian and Pacific Islanders have also begun movements to address racism and violence.
President Trump was criticized by many Americans for his comments and actions related to racial conflicts. Some felt that he was encouraging White supremacists or disrespecting the right of people to assemble and protest.
The most significant racial justice protests since the 1960s happened in the summer of 2020 when marches were held in hundreds of cities to protest police violence after the murder of George Floyd. Numerous changes have been enacted as a result, including changing names and increased efforts to make sure minority groups are represented and portrayed respectfully in business and popular culture.
BLM has been criticized as anti-police and encouraging racial division. Although there has not been a decline in police shootings, police departments around the country have implemented reforms such as an increased emphasis on community policing, banning some tactics, and the use of body cameras.
The Shelby County v. Holder case invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in many Republican-controlled states new restrictions on voting rights have been enacted.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Barack Obama: First African American president. He is a Democrat and was elected in 2008 and reelected 2012.
Treyvon Martin: African American teenager who was murdered in 2012 while walking home from buying candy from a convenience store in Florida. His death sparked the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Eric Garner: African American man who died in 2014 after being held in a chokehold by New York City Police. His last words were “I can’t breathe” which became a slogan of anti-police brutality protests.
Michael Brown, Jr.: African American teenager killed by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests after his death were the first to feature large numbers of participants organized by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old African American boy killed by police in 2014 who believed he was carrying a gun. It turned out to be an air pistol. His death was widely protested as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Freddie Gray, Jr.: African American man who died in a police van from spinal cord injuries in 2015 in Baltimore. His death sparked protests that turned violent.
Breonna Taylor: African American woman killed when police attempted to carry out a no-knock warrant of her apartment. Her death helped give rise to the #SayHerName campaign.
Sandra Bland: An African American woman who died while in police custody. Her story gained national attention through the #SayHerName movement and led to police reforms in Texas.
Colin Kaepernick: NFL quarterback who knelt during The Star Spangled Banner beginning in 2016. His actions launched a wider use of that non-violent protest among professional athletes.
Beyoncé: Pop star who used Black Power symbolism to protest treatment of African Americans by police during the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show.
George Floyd: African American man who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for over nine minutes. His death in 2020 sparked the largest racial justices protests in American history.
White Flight: The movement of Whites out of inner cities into suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s that resulted in poorer urban cores populated by African Americans and Hispanics surrounded by suburbs of almost all White residents.
Community Policing: Police practices that include meeting people instead of only riding in cars, and doing public relations activities such as running children’s sports leagues.
Body Cameras: Small digital video cameras worn by police officers.
Bertherism: The lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Before running for president himself, Donald Trump was famous for spreading this lie.
Dog Whistle: A phrase or comment used by politicians to show support for a group but that other groups of voters will not notice or find offensive.
Defund the Police: A rallying cry and policy proposal that grew out of the George Floyd protests of 2020. It frightens some Americans who favor law-and-order and lowered overall public support for the protests.
Voter Suppression: Any action designed to make voting harder. After the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, numerous laws and policies have been implemented to this effect.
SPEECHES, SLOGANS & SYMBOLS
2002 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech: Speech by then-Senator Barack Obama in which he rejected divisions in America. It is sometimes called the “Purple America” speech in reference to the merging of blue and red. Obama’s performance propelled him to national fame.
A More Perfect Union Speech: Speech by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign in which he explicitly addressed the issue of race. Some political historians regard it as a turning point in the campaign.
I Can’t Breathe: Eric Garner’s last words. They became a slogan of protesters against police brutality.
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: The last words some believe Michael Brown said before being killed by police in 2014. They became a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Confederate Battle Flag: The flag carried by troops from the South into battle during the Civil War. It was resurrected in the 1960s by White Southerners who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and is now a powerful symbol of hate and racism.
Thin Blue Line Flag: A modified American flag that is black and white with one blue line across the center. It is used to show support for the police.
Lower Ninth Ward: Mostly African American neighborhood in New Orleans that was devastated by flooding in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
Shelby County v. Holder: 2013 Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that large sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act no longer applied. After the ruling, Republican politicians in many states implemented changes designed to suppress the minority vote.
Flint Water Crisis: Health crisis revealed in 2014 in which the mostly African American residents of Flint, Michigan were drinking tap water contaminated with lead.
Black Lives Matter (BLM): Racial justice movement that developed around 2014 and focuses on police brutality. It is led by younger Americans rather than the generation that led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Ferguson Unrest: Weeklong protests and confrontations between protesters and law enforcement after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. Protests restarted after the announcement that the officer who shot him would not be indicted, and again on the anniversary of Brown’s death.
2015 Baltimore Protest: Violent unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The protests resulted in arson, arrests, injuries to police and the calling of the National Guard to restore order.
McKinney Pool Party: 2015 incident in Texas in which a White police officer tackled an African American teenage girl outside a pool party and then later pulled his gun. The incident was captured on video.
SayHerName: An outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement focuses on bringing attention to police violence against African American Women.
Charleston Church Shooting: Mass shooting of African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 by a White supremacist. The attack sparked a debate over public displays of the Confederate battle flag.
University of Missouri Protests: Protests in 2015 at the University of Missouri when students decided the school’s chancellor had not done enough to address racism and hate on campus. The protests succeeded when the school’s football team refused to play.
2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show: Performance by Beyoncé in which she used Black Power symbolism to protest treatment of African Americans by police.
Unite the Right: A rally held by various White supremist groups in 2017 in Charlottesville. Trump’s comments about the rally resulted in the lowest approval rating of his presidency.
George Floyd Protests: The largest racial justice protests in American history. They were held in dozens of cities around the nation during the summer of 2020.
Trump’s Photo Op at St. John’s Church: During the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 President Trump ordered police to forcibly remove peaceful protesters so he could have a photo taken holding a Bible in front of a church near the White House. His attempt to capture public support backfired.
Blue Lives Matter: Slogan of a movement in support of police officers in response to criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Stop AAPI Hate: Movement that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic to combat violence and prejudice against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
LAWS & RESOLUTIONS
Stand-Your-Ground Laws: Laws that permit citizens to use deadly force to defend themselves if they feel threatened.
Voter ID Laws: Laws that require voters to show photo identification. Proponents claim they will stop voter fraud. Opponents claim they make voting harder, especially for the elderly, minorities and the poor