2020 Forced Americans to Confront the Reality of Racism. In 2021, Many Looked Away
After Judge Timothy Walmsley had read the majority of guilty verdicts, which could have sent three white men into prison for Ahmaud’s murder, it was Nov. 24 when there were many things happening at the Glynn county, Ga. courthouse. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that a quiet but essential moment went largely unnoticed.
When the courtroom doors opened and Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones walked out, she crossed paths with Mona Hardin, mother of the late Ronald Greene. Cooper-Jones initially was told her son died in a home burglary. He had actually been shot and chased down on the streets. Hardin received a call from Lousianna state Troopers stating that Hardin’s son had died in the same incident. Video footage later obtained by the Associated Press of the incident showed Greene was involved in a chase. After being stunned and beaten by law enforcement officers, he was left moaning on a ground while officers wiped away his blood. Federal officials later found no damage to the vehicle or Greene’s body consistent with a crash. Some troopers have been fired or arrested in connection to other cases, while another remains, albeit with a short suspension. Hardin remains to be informed if the FBI or U.S. attorneys in Louisiana will act in this case.
Outside that courtroom, without first speaking a word, the two women—one now in possession of some measure of justice, one in limbo—for several long seconds embraced.
Continue reading: What Ahmaud Arbery’s Death Has Meant for the Place Where He Lived
When I spoke with her in December, Hardin described the comfort she drew from that moment of compassionate touch between two women who know what it is to grieve dead sons—sons initially blamed for their own fates, with mothers deeply aware of the ways a country founded on the principle of equality is inclined to betray women like them. Although it was palliative, this is part of an ugly and long-standing tradition. Cooper-Jones, Hardin did in 2021 the same thing Mamie Till Mobley, mother to Emmett Till in 1955, said Davis Houck at Florida State University. They fought for justice and public attention.
“Justice shouldn’t take those herculean efforts on the part of a mom or a family,” Houck says when we speak, days after the Justice Department closed its only remaining inquiry into the Till murder, nearly 70 years after the crime, “but here we are.”
These women, like so many before them, have ultimately found that while some people care what happened to their sons, many others—people who have no reason to fear a similar fate for their own children—never will in any way that matters.
In many ways, this is a unique year in history, as it marks the second anniversary of a pandemic. But when it comes to inequality, 2021 is also a year like so many others—a year in which, despite a preceding season of promises and apologia, little of substance has changed. American life is full of discrimination and racial inequality. It was easy for this nation, that had declared itself awake to inequality only a year earlier to turn its back.
The March of Death brought with it a string of deadly events of shootings at Atlanta-area spas staffed mostly by Asian-American women, a law-enforcement spokesperson in the county where one of the shooting sprees had taken place described the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, as simply a young man who had “a really bad day.” Despite a combined racial and gender dynamic that was obvious to many Americans, police and prosecutors in that county would later say they did not believe they could make a case that the shootings were hate crimes. Long was sentenced to life imprisonment as part of a plea agreement. Long will still be facing murder and hate crime charges in the next year for his involvement in shooting incident in Atlanta.
Continue reading: Atlanta’s First Black Female District Attorney Is at the Center of America’s Converging Crises
Research released by the RAND Corporation in December found that—Even though there is ample evidence this has been true throughout the pandemic—between July 2020 and September 2021, significantly fewer people agreed than in previous periods when asked if the COVID-19 pandemic has hit people of color harder than white people, in terms of both health and finances. Another report released this month suggests one possible reason why: The survey, from the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, found that while Americans on both sides of the aisle say they rank “uniting the country” as a high priority, “many Americans don’t appear to have substantial concern for people who are different from them in background and character.”
It’s simply possible for many to see their lives as separate from broad and unmistakable patterns of ongoing bigotry. Yet, there is no doubt this year that a problem exists.
In January, as a horrendous 2020—which, on top of the pandemic, brought the largest volume of hate crime reported by the FBI in 12 years, with more than 60% of the almost 8,300 incidents motivated by racist animus—faded to 2021, a horde of believers in the “big lie” that the election was stolen from Donald Trump invaded the Capitol. With them, they carried their fear, anger and Confederate battle banner. For all the nation’s long and varied history of political conflict, social strife and resistance to change, the full Confederate battle flag had never made it to the Capitol before 2021. Harry Dunn, an officer in law enforcement, stated before Congress that other Black officers were also subject to racist epithets from members of the mob. These remarks have been attempted by some Republicans to play down as “tourists”.
A trial was underway in Minneapolis for a rare white ex-police officer who was convicted of George Floyd’s murder. But just down the street, a young Black officer opened fire on another officer and fatally shot him. According to the officer, she did not intend to use a Taser against him. The Thin Blue Line flag was visible overhead during the tragedy and protests outside the police headquarters.
The University of North Carolina trustees stopped Nikole Hannah Jones, an award-winning Black journalist, from being granted tenure in May. This was prompted by a generous donor. Times’ 1619 Project, which suggests chattel slavery as a lens through which to view American history. After a public scandal, she was awarded tenure in the next month. Instead, she chose to be a Howard University teacher. The debate underlined the visceral discomfort a significant share of white Americans feel about the nation’s racial history. Throughout the year, the question of that past turned school-board meetings across the country—already caught in conflicts with parents who reject the known science around COVID19 and its spread—ever uglier. They returned to being the key battlegrounds in political debates, and classrooms regrouped. A Texas state legislator sent an October letter asking education officials to determine if their school districts had copies of 850 books. The request was in response to a law restricting how teachers may discuss race, gender, identity, and civil rights. School officials now have to inventory titles ranging from Ruby Bridges’ book about her experience as the first Black child in New Orleans to be integrated into a school that was previously predominantly white. Rules for the Cider House.By November, well-regarded Democratic political advisers—speaking for the party to which most Black voters belong—made clear that they blamed the Republican win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race on the effort to teach more accurate information about the role of race in American history.
Continue reading: ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History
In July, a group of mostly Black and Latino Democrats in the Texas state legislature fled Austin for Washington, D.C., in hopes of preventing the passage of measures that would likely, despite the growing number of Texans of color, further dampen that population’s political influence. And in the capital—even after Black voters were lauded by Democrats for their role in tipping the 2020 election—a federal defense of voting rights has floundered thanks in large part to two white lawmakers who are unwilling to upend Senate traditions rooted in the nation’s long standing politics of racial oppression. At least 19 states have laws which voting rights advocates claim restrict the participation of voters of colour.
Personal cruelties persist, too. In September, white high school students in Portland, Ore., a white liberal bastion, were found to have engaged with others around the country in an online mock “slave trade” of thier few Black classmates. The following month in Davis County, Utah, the U.S. Justice Department announced the results of an investigation into what it described as a pattern of school teachers and administrators ignoring racial harassment, bullying and outright discrimination against the district’s few Black and Asian students. Those findings produced an agreement mandating training and other changes—but, in the words of Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, help may have arrived too late. A few weeks after the agreement, a 10-year-old girl, Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, died by suicide. According to her family, she was constantly harassed, teased and bullied because of her autistic condition and being Black. She was also called the “n-word” by students. The district and DOJ have since announced plans to probe events surrounding Izzy’s death.
Clarke’s comments were made just one day priorAt an annual meeting of lawyers general, the DOJ division announced it would end its investigation into the involvement of Carolyn Bryant Donham (now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham) in Emmett Till’s death. In 1955, an all white and male Mississippi jury acquitted her then husband and his half-brother of Till’s murder; they later admitted to the crime.
Houck is quick to point out, however, that even without the recourse of a courtroom Black people didn’t want the world to forget what happened to Emmett Till. Locally, he says, they boycotted the Bryants’ store, eventually forcing it’s sale. And his mother made the world confront her panic when Emmett was missing as well as the gruesome reality of her son’s death. This result sparked civil rights movements.
Maybe that is what attracted my attention to the hug that was shared in the hall. That act of kindness and care. Hardin claims that she was raised on the gospels of colorblind living but now considers it too risky. In December she spoke to me and explained that Families United 4 Justice Network holds regular meetings of relatives of those whose deaths were not addressed by the criminal justice systems. They have provided her with comfort as well as insight on how one can wage war with a country who would prefer to stay away.
The end of the year has made it seem unlikely that her efforts in 2022 will be enough to make it a success.
—Simmone Shah reporting.