Now that another year is upon us, it has given me the chance to reflect on how racially intense the year 2013 was.
It’s safe to say that race was front and center in 2013, from the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin Miami Dolphins racial harassment and text messaging saga to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson being suspended then recently reinstated by A&E for making what many people would argue were unflattering and misguided comments in regards to Black Americans and gay people. No matter where you turned, racial politics dominated the public landscape.
In late spring, we heard of celebrity cook Paula Deen’s desires for a “slave themed wedding” with Black men and women dressed in slave attire reminiscent of the pre-Civil War era, as well as her blatant admission that “of course she had frequently used the N –word” throughout her life in a court deposition. More telling was the “why are you all that shocked?” sort-of-response she gave to her critics and the public at large. Quite frankly, I was not surprised. For several days, the mainstream media followed her suddenly newfound mea culpa’s and messy explanations (which actually made her situation worse) and the avalanche effect that the scandal had on her previously growing culinary empire. The domino effect was in full force. In a mere matter of weeks, Deen’s television career was as dead as fried chicken.
By midsummer, a large segment of the public was fixated on the George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin saga. For many people of color (and a number of Whites), the not guilty verdict that was rendered to a grown adult man who had shot an unarmed teenager was a kick in the gut and served to further polarize an already racially fragmented nation. For those of us with an acute sense of history, flashbacks and visions of Emmett Till permeated our minds. After the verdict, Martin’s parents urged peace and prayers and have conducted themselves with a level of grace, dignity and forgiveness that few of us could or would have been able to do. Their behavior is inspiring beyond belief.
In the largely racially pluralistic world of academia, we heard of blackface parties, violent and aggravated racial harassment, racial discrimination by certain college sororities (pressured by alumni) and stories (and in some cases, videos) from Black male students reciting chronic social isolation at predominately White institutions. There were stories of covert, as well as overt, racism that Black students endured on a daily basis at some of our nations most prestigious campuses, demonstrating that last year was far from being a progressive one on the racial front.
What is even more notable were recent polls conducted by the Associated Press that revealed that the number of Americans with overtly anti-Black attitudes rose to 52 percent from 48 percent in 2008. Implicit racist attitudes increased from 49 percent to 56 percent. Another set of polls administered by the AP found that anti-Latino attitudes and sentiment had become more commonplace since 2011. While these increases are not overwhelmingly large, they are striking enough to cause any racially progressive person cause for pause.
There is no doubt the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 has caused an unprecedented level of fear and resentment in a segment of the population who demographically is older, less educated, blue collar, male and struggling economically. These are the people who have been unable to accept a monumental event, let alone celebrate it. In their reality, such events only happen in fiction novels or Hollywood movies. For this segment of the population, November 5, 2008 marked the beginning of a long nightmare from which they have yet awakened.
The fact is that race relations have gotten slightly worse than they were a few years ago. But as someone who is a historian, I can vouch for the fact that they are significantly better than they were in 1964. In fact, they have considerably improved since the largely reactionary 1980s. Throughout history, Americans (read White men) have frequently reacted brashly to dramatic changes that have occurred in society—The Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement and, more recently, Gay and lesbian rights. The first two events overcame the wrath of their adversaries and the third seems poised to claim victory as well.
Sometimes, things tend to get worse before they improve. That being said, if I were a betting man, I would say that the current strife we are witnessing in race relations will eventually erode. All the recent demographic data would indicate this. Moreover, the racial optimist in me believes so as well.