Black Lives Matter. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Baltimore. Chicago.
Tamir Rice: a twelve-year-old boy playing in the park, who was shot dead by police within seconds of their arrival. The prosecutor attributed Rice’s murder to “a perfect storm of human error,” rather than an American police state that perpetuates acts of domestic terrorism on its citizens—especially its black citizens.
21: The number of bodies of trans women of color (that we know of) murdered this year alone.
So has 2015 brought us any social or political progress when it comes to discourse about race, race relations and racism, in America?
The short answer? No.
Nearly eight years have elapsed since president Barack Obama was sworn in at the White House, a moment that generated much optimism about a new era of racial tolerance in America. Perhaps the last vestiges of this honeymoon period can be observed in a recent MTV “Bias Survey” of millennials, which found that only 37% of respondents “were brought up in families that talked about race.”
However, not talking about race hasn’t made it disappear or helped bring us closer together. Quite the contrary: “2015 revealed nothing new about race discourse or the function of anti-black racism in the US,” senior Mic.com correspondent and EBONY Power 100 honoree Darnell Moore explained in an interview with Quartz. “In this country we are harmed by our amnesiac approaches to historical accounting.”
This amnesia, it became painfully clear this year, has hindered the healing process and masked the very real undercurrent of racism that continues to flow through America’s veins. For years, many people—especially white people—were able to ignore this undercurrent, to allow optimism and naiveté to blind themselves to the truth outside their gated subjectivity.
This blissful ignorance falls under the auspices of racial, white privilege. In 2015, however, this privilege has been interrogated; Black Lives Matter has become the greatest social justice movement of this young century.
So now what?
The correlation between activism in the streets and policy made behind closed doors remains tenuous. Hillary Clinton served a solid dose of pragmatic medicine when she told BLM activists in August, “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way the systems operate.”
And yet, violence against black bodies—at an institutional, systemic level—is not new. It is historic, and endemic to this nation. Correlatively, Moore observes, “civil unrest in response to widespread inequity or police abuse is not new. Public demonstrations and protests in response to state sanctioned violence aren’t new. Black people affirming the mattering of our lives started the moment enslaved bodies—viewed as property—demanded freedom.”
It is because we live bifurcated lives, dividing our existence on- and off-line, however, that violence against black bodies has once again become widely visible, arguably inescapable. The internet at large—where information is collected and disseminated at rapid speed—coupled with social media—where there is a democratization of voices—has rendered it impossible for anyone connected to remain blissfully ignorant of the violence and oppression of people of color. This mainstreaming, which has in turn lead to increased global visibility, also gives lie to the notion that we as a nation are finally talking about race, when, in fact, people of color have been talking about it all along.
“Communities of color have known for quite some time that racism was pervasive in the United States, but thanks to the internet it’s no longer our word against the status quo,” Danielle Moodie-Mills, activist and host of Politini, tells Quartz. “Racist behavior no longer floats into the ether or stays within the confines of neighborhood boundaries.” Even if directed at one person originally, incidents of police brutality, or racist rhetoric can quickly reverberate across social media channels. “The vigilance of the internet is vigorous and necessary,” Moodie-Mills notes.
The perception that racial violence is increasing is an outgrowth of this internet vigilance, especially in terms of police brutality. But the virality of news about this violence and the corresponding waves of frustration and outrage do not necessarily mean it is comparatively more prevalent.
“Our national reckonings with race and racism are ongoing,” Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a historian of race, politics, and social movements who teaches at Harvard University, tells Quartz. “But they have exploded at various moments throughout American history: debates over slavery and its abolition, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the lynching crisis, the struggle for civil rights, and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Historically speaking, we are experiencing very little in the present moment that is categorically different from past crises or crucibles. Race has always shaped our social, economic, and political relations; racial prejudice and inequality have always existed in American culture; and racial violence—whether perpetrated by individuals or the state—is as old as America itself.”
Combative partisan politics, another one of America’s favorite pastimes, has been an integral part of this reawakening as well.
Indeed, the current election cycle is eerily evocative of the presidential election cycle of 1968. That year, America was in an endless, pointless war abroad, in Vietnam. At home, America was at war with itself. Racial tensions were reaching a boiling point. It was the year Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and prominent Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton were murdered—the same year in which the GOP’s emergent electoral theme coalesced around “law and order.” Nixon won the Republican nomination, and the election, by vowing to “Make America First Again”—which his GOP primary opponent, Ronald Reagan, adapted and later used as his victorious 1980 slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Victoria Bond, John Jay professor and author of the award-winning Zora & Me, contends that “racism is more visible because of social media” and also because of “black people in high, prominent places,” like president Obama. On the other hand, while many hoped (or assumed) that Obama’s election in 2008 was going to benefit black Americans, “the truth is that a black figure of immense authority has only triggered more racism, pushing hard on the white supremacist impulse. Part of why we talk about race more is that some people are as racist as ever.”
Washington University of St. Louis professor of anthropology Robert Sussman, author of the stunning book The Myth of Race tells Quartz that the current presidential election cycle is a good indicator of this ongoing racial tension: “It seems to me that in 2015, the two sides, racists and anti-racists, are very willing to fight for their beliefs.” Even if social justice and anti-racist advocates educate others and “keep the laws on their side,” Sussman admits, “racism will still raise its ugly head.”
Where does that leave us? It is common, when curating year-end wrap-ups, to reflect on the positive. And there were some bright spots, or at least silver linings, that emerged in concert with the aggressive drumbeat of awareness provided by activists and the media. “I think that this year reflects both the best and the worst about the question of racism in America,” Sussman says, noting that we should weigh the reactionary racist rhetoric of the past 12 months against the efforts of those fighting to counter such racism.
And yet, in this case, it is not unreasonable to be pessimistic because of the way history has proven itself cyclical.
Unfortunately, we are left with a decidedly unhopeful reality. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, to be “wedded to ‘hope’ is ultimately divorced from ‘truth.’” If 2015 is any indication, 2016 will be filled with racial tension, turmoil, and aggression, potentially broadcast an even larger scale than this year. Violence against black and brown bodies will increasingly become more visible, yet this visibility will yield little justice. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott are only a handful of the people killed on camera this year by police. Technology is an empty promise; strapping the cops with cameras seems increasingly unlikely to bring resolution. There will be no silver bullet, only more bullets hitting flesh.
In 2015, in large part due to social media, we have shone a bright light on racial violence in America. But this level of exposure is just the first step in eradicating the well of racism that has watered America’s roots for hundreds of years.