First, a quick overview of racism in 2009. There were several prevalent themes this year in stories about race and racism. Chiefly, the most amazing and oft-reported story was the inauguration of the first African American to the office of the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama. This fact made news both signifier and reality, as did the racist backlash against him. Another frequent theme in 2009 was the impact of racism on health, the reality of health disparities and racism in the health care debate. Economics, economic meltdown and the overrepresentation of white (straight) men in the role of perpetrators of the financial collapse and the overrepresentation of brown and black folks among those receiving the impact of that disaster was a major story. The persistent problem of pollice brutality and the disproportionate impact on black men continued to be a serious issue. Mainstream media’s racist representation, especially the NYPost and CNN, garnered strong critique this year. And, the possible consequences of hate speech became all too real when an avowed white supremacist, James Von Brunn, opened fire at the Washington, D.C. Holocaust museum. The shooting, and several incidents on Facebook, also highlighted the rise in cyber racism; there was also a notable success in fighting white supremacy via the web. The year 2009 also marked some milestones: John Hope Franklin, Ronald Takaki, and Percy Sutton died, each one a hero in different ways. In 2009, we saw the first all black female flight crew, first woman of color on the Supreme Court of the U.S. And, all in the category of “a step in the right direction”: Lou Dobbs resigned from CNN, an immigrant student wrongly targeted for immigration was granted a reprieve, and a swimming pool club accused of racist exclusion of would-be swimmers in July, closed in November.
Here’s the month-by-month breakdown.
- January 2009: January was bracketed by two, compelling and starkly different racial events. Early in the month, Oscar Grant, III a young African American father, was shot while handcuffed by a BART cop on a train platform. This event was tragic on individual level for Mr. Grant’s family, and resonated as a symbol of the ongoing problem of police brutality. The other event in January was, of course, the inauguration of President Barack Obama. At the time, I wrote that we were entering a ‘new era of learning about racism.’ A number of the predominantly white, mainstream news outlets began to note an ever-so-slight shift in the cultural zeitgeist for talking about issues of race. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece in the “style” section, declared that it’s now “OK to talk about race,” because the presence of President Obama offers a comfortable way for whites to approach a topic that they generally regard as taboo. This proved to be true through out the year.
- February 2009: President Obama appointed Eric Holder as the Attorney General, the the first African American to hold that office. Holder as the new Attorney General made a vow that his office would return to being an effective mechanism for fighitng racial inequality and remarked that the U.S. is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to dealing with race. That same month, the NYPost ran an editorial cartoon widely regarded as racist, and the paper was eventually sued by two employees who were fired because of their objections to the cartoon.
- March 2009: Contributing blogger Lou noted the milestone event of the first-ever all black female flight crew. This was also the month that the incredible light of John Hope Franklin was extinguished. Joe and contributing blogger both posted on different aspects of the economic meltdown. Joe noted that there’s a clear pattern that white men are the problem; Abigail noted the similarities (and differences) between Obama and FDR in addressing the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the right continued to launch racist attacks against President Obama similar to the ones that surfaced during the campaign, including references to the turning the White House lawn into a watermelon patch.
- April 2009: Janet Napolitano, the new head of Homeland Security, released a report predicting a rise in “right-wing extremist” groups but fails to mention racism. Meanwhile, right-wingers in the Senate and beyond howl at the report. The SPLC also noted the rise in racist groups in the U.S. Contributing blogger Claire Renzetti wrote about an important new study on “Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, which examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement. I wrote about a new study showing the widening racial wealth gap. The Brazilian president made remarks basically agreeing with Joe’s assessment about the banking crisis. The NYTimes’ columnist Maureen Dowd basically called him (the Brazilian president, not Joe) a “lunatic” for making such an observation. The same month, a matched study revealed racial discrimination in hiring at NYC restaurants.
- May 2009: National poll data released this month revealed an overall optimism about “race.” At the same time, the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online. People are also finding innovative ways to use the web to combat racism. For example, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)–created in Texas in 1960s and now a leading Latino civil rights and educational organization–operates a “Truth in Immigration” website with useful information and research data on how the media are portraying Latino immigrants, with an accent on errors, including web videos that counter some media distortions. This month also saw a renewed national debate about torture of political prisoners in dueling speeches between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Contributor Sherene Razack wrote an excellent part two-part series on Racism, Empire and Torture (pt. 2 is here). The end of the month saw President Obama nominate the first woman of color, Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, to the Supreme Court of the United States. Contributing blogger Adia Harvey Wingfield wrote about the significance of Sotomayor’s nomination and then wondered where were Gloria Steinem (and other white feminists) were to defend her during harsh media criticism. Asian American studies pioneer Ronald Takaki died and we lost a great mind in the field. Another black man – Omar Edwards- an off-duty cop, was killed by fellow white police officers in New York City. Edwards left behind a wife and two young children. Joe noted the need for police brutality to be part of the national agenda on race.
- June 2009: In June, an avowed white supremacist named James Von Brunn entered the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and opened fire, killing an African American security guard. Contributing blogger Matthew Hughley examined the representation of hegemonic whiteness in the reporting about the shooter. The U.S. Senate voted on the passage of an apology for slavery. Contributing blogger C. Richard King noted that the Senate apology for slavery is hundreds of years too late.
- July 2009: Michael Jackson died and Athena and Joe reflected on the deep impact he had on the racial imagination. The height of summer also saw the emergence of swimming pool racism and a huge controversy (by November that pool had gone bankrupt). It was during July that Harvard Professor Skip Gates was arrested in his own home, sparking an even larger controversy. There was also another example of Facebook racism.
- August 2009: Allen McDuffee, a NYC-based freelance journalist, did a remarkable job of fighting cyber racism in this incredible story. Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. Contributing blogger Tim Wise helped us make sense of the vilification of Barack Obama. Several promising young academics faced the job market and racism.
- September 2009: Newsweek magazine published a long article about research by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, award-winning science journalists, on some psychological research on children and racial matters, apparently an excerpt from a new book NurtureShock, but Joe noted that they missed the big picture about racism. Contributing blogger Beverly Pratt noted the importance of the upcoming census, especially for Latinos. Activists began a concentrated effort to oust Lou Dobbs from CNN for his persistent anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Contributing blogger Tanya Maria Golash-Boza brought our attention to the mass deportation of people of color from the U.S.
- October 2009: President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and a racist backlash began. The H1N1 virus spread as did the racist explanations for the virus. Indigenous people celebrated a day of remembrance globally. And, interracial couples had a particularly bad month. In one instance, an interracial couple was denied a marriage license and in another, an interracial couple was gunned down following a verbal attack.
- November 2009: A new study documents the toll that racial discrimination takes on mental health. The presence of pre-existing racial segregation contributes to a disproportionate impact on blacks in the subprime housing disaster. Lou Dobbs leaves CNN. Joe noted the importation of white racism into China. Adia wrote about the fading of Sammy Sosa. Another study documented impact of racism on the health of children. Even at the highest levels in U.S. society, racial disparities seem to be operating as I noted in this post about the racism at play in congressional ethics probes. Contributing blogger John D. Foster discussed the racist portrayal of President Obama as a rapist by white conservatives. Contributing blogger Matthew Hughley wrote about why myths matter, especially those around Thanksgiving.
- December 2009: Activists called for movement on the Dream Act, which would help children of immigrants go to college and achieve other dreams. One student, a child of immigrant parents and a college student, faced deportation but activists were able to get this stopped. December and the end of the year meant that the themes of race and racism were reflected in the Hollywood movies released for the holiday movie-going season, such as “The Blind Side.” Contributing blogger Rosalind Chou brought a different perspective to “Invictus.” And, contributing bloggers Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, authors of Screen Saviors, offered their take on the blockbuster of the season, “Avatar.”
That’s my take on the year-end review of racism.