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10 Racial Justice Stories That Defined 2016

by Amanda Machado Dec 19, 2016

1. The #OscarsSoWhite movement reminds us that in Hollywood, we’ve always celebrated the same stories and same faces for years.

At the 2016 Oscars, all twenty actors nominated for the lead and supporting roles were white. This hadn’t happened since 1998, but in many ways, it wasn’t surprising: in the 88 years of the Academy Awards, Oscars for acting have been give to only 14 black actors, only 5 Latino actors (none in the last fifteen years), only three Asian-American actors (none in the last thirty years), and only one indigenous actor winner (in 1972).

Part of the problem was the diversity of the voting bloc: a 2012 report by the Los Angeles Times found that Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male. Another problem is the diversity of Hollywood leadership in general: a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report done by UCLA found that film studio heads are 94% white and 100% male.

After seeing the dismally homogenous nominations, April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag which trended on Twitter and gave the issue more widespread attention. She also wrote a “10 point plan” on how Hollywood could concretely address the issue. The campaign led to some positive change: the governing board of the academy unanimously voted to double the amount of female and minority members by 2020. They also changed the lifetime member voting status of members to make it easier for new faces to have a voice (voting membership now only lasts ten years before members have to reapply).

This year, Fusion reported that the 700 new members inducted were 46% women and 41% people of color. Yet even with this year’s changes, there’s still lots of work to do: the Academy is still 89% white and 70% male.

2. Viral videos on social media make police brutality disturbingly visible.

The New York Times created a collection of the many videos released this year showing evidence of police brutality. The videos sparked protests across the country. Celebrities responded with a video counting the “23 ways you could be killed while black.” Meanwhile, statistics continue proving that police brutality towards people of color is a civil rights issue. Vox reported the results of a ProPublica analysis of FBI data which found that between 2010 and 2012, black teenagers were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police. A Guardian analysis of 2015 police killings found that racial minorities constitute 62% of unarmed people killed by police, even though the demographic only makes up around 37% percent of the U.S. population.

To some extent, these videos helped create more awareness of the problem. But as Vox’s Dara Lind argued, these videos are not enough, if not accompanied by concrete action and policy changes.

“Millions of Americans have already seen videos in which black men are killed by police to whom they did not pose an apparent threat. There’s a point when “consciousness raising” loses its utility as an argument. When the only people watching a police shooting video are people who already knew something like that could happen, what does watching the video actually do for them?”

3. Colin Kaepernick starts a country-wide movement to silently protest the oppression of people of color.

It started during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, during which Kaepernick refused to stand during the anthem. Over time, it became of movement with several people across the country joining him: NFL players, soccer players, middle school athletes, marching bands, national anthem singers, veteran spectators, even citizens at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The protest made such an influential statement that Kaepernick made the cover of Time magazine.

While several veterans applauded Kaepernick’s actions, others criticized him and argued that his protest was inherently disrespectful. The backlash was so severe it caused a loss of endorsements and death threats for some players involved in the protest, while others argued it caused the huge drop in ratings for the NFL. This response caused many racial justice activists to ask: what form of black protest would ever be accepted by white Americans?

4. Government policy begins to acknowledge the influence of implicit bias.

In 2016, in a response to issues between the police and people of color, the Department of Justice began requiring its own law enforcement agents and lawyers to complete implicit bias training. They defined implicit bias as “the unconscious or subtle associations that individuals make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups.” Plenty of recent research has proven that implicit bias exists within everyone. For example, some studies have shown that officers shoot black suspects more often than white suspects in video game simulations. With certain tools and training, it’s possible to train your brain against it. Police departments in several cities this year followed the federal government’s lead and instituted similar trainings.

5. And the Democratic party begins to acknowledge institutionalized racism.

But implicit bias isn’t enough. As Destiny Perry, an Assistant Professor of Law and Psychology at Northwestern, argues: “If we’re not confronting the ways that police culture or the criminal justice system or media representations are biased against certain groups, awareness of implicit biases will do little to prevent racial bias in policing or society more broadly.”

But this year, the concept of institutionalized bias also gained traction. Bernie Sanders released a comprehensive platform on racial justice that addressed the existence of institutionalized racism. And at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton became the first presidential candidate from the two major parties in history to acknowledge “systemic racism” in a nomination speech.

There’s still much more the Democratic Party can do. As Mychal Denzel Smith argued in a piece for The Nation: “Elected officials and candidates, en masse, have yet to face consequences for not being sufficiently opposed to institutional racism. Instead, they’ve been rewarded for crossing what’s ultimately a pretty low bar: acknowledging that racism exists.”

6. The Brexit vote makes Europe come to terms with xenophobia and racism.

After the historic Brexit vote, CNN reported several racists attacks across Britain. The Muslim Council of Britain released a gallery of “100 hate incidents” from social media. In September, the National Police Chiefs’ Council claimed that hate crimes increased by 58 per cent in the week following the vote to leave the EU.

The Guardian also described reports from the Council of Europe arguing that police and courts in the UK were underplaying hate crimes in the judicial system by “filtering out” the racial aspects of each case and refusing to acknowledge racist motivations. The report also mentioned that half of hate crimes reported to British police were never punished.

7. The Trump candidacy makes the United States come to terms with its own “whitelash” of xenophobia and racism.

During the election, the New York Times created a video montage of disturbing footage of Trump supporters using racist and misogynistic language at rallied, and even violently attacking others. After the South Carolina primary, the New York Times reported exit poll data showing the significant support of several racist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideas by those voting for Trump.

The documentary Hate Rising by Jorge Ramos revealed how this hateful rhetoric, particularly towards Latinx, made many elementary school students fearful for the safety of their families. The Los Angeles Times reported findings from the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations that hate crimes against Latinos increased 69% last year, with many attackers using anti-immigrant language during the crime. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Muslims also increased.

After the election, twitter users posted hundreds of stories of hateful attacks made in response to Trump’s win.

8. Indigenous Day gains momentum.

In 2016, NPR reported that Phoenix became the largest U.S. city to recognize the holiday and joined cities like Seattle and Minneapolis who recognized the holiday starting in 2014. Denver, the city that first started the holiday, also decided to make observation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day permanent. Together, these cities gradually are creating a nationwide movement to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus towards indigenous communities.

9. Congress becomes more diverse than ever.

The Washington post reported that the January Congress will include the highest number of women of color in its history: 38. There were other “firsts” to be celebrated: the country elected its first Latina senator and its first formerly undocumented immigrant (and first Dominican-American) congressmen. Kamala Harris became the the first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate and only the second African American female senator. Stephanie Murphy (D) became the first Vietnamese-American female member of Congress. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D) became Delaware’s first African American congresswoman. In state elections, Minnesota elected the first Somali American lawmaker and voters across the country elected 40 Native American Democrats in state legislative races.

10. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation stops the Dakota Access Pipeline.

After months of protests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had denied a permit required to build the Dakota Access Pipeline.The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued to a federal court that “the construction and operation of the pipeline […] threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.”

Many also cited that the pipeline had already been rejected by citizens of Bismarck because it posed a “potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply.” Activists argued that if it was a potential threat to Bismark, it should also be considered a potential threat to Native people.

Though it is still unclear how the situation will change under a new presidency in January, the historic victory illustrated that organized resistance can actually make a difference in federal policy.

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