By Brandon Tensley, CNN
Published Dec. 16, 2021
We witnessed the destructive power of anger and resentment this year.
Brandishing Confederate iconography, insurrectionists laid siege to the US Capitol, in what amounted to an assault on multiracial democracy. Republican-led state legislatures enacted laws making it more difficult for people of color to vote, and also waged war on transgender kids. Within the GOP, Islamophobia proved to be as potent as ever.
Cruelty didn’t go unchallenged, of course. For instance, in the aftermath of the massacre in Atlanta that left eight people—including six women of Asian descent—dead, people across the country poured into the streets to demand change and combat hate. Still, 2021 was marked by a number of prominent issues, particularly on the race and equality front.
To explore some of these issues, I reached out to experts. They broke down some of the most important 2021 moments and trends—and reflected on how they might inform race and equality conversations as we trudge into the year ahead.
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The power of eye-opening images By Tomiko Brown-Nagin
In 2021, I was struck—again—by the role of images in advancing justice. Among the most potent examples were the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Images have long been catalysts of change in the struggle for equal justice under law and civil rights in the US, a focus of my scholarship. Photographs of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham “sickened” President John F. Kennedy and pricked the conscience of Whites who had ignored the horror of segregation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by law enforcement officers, footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” helped turn the tide in the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In recent years, ordinary people with cell phones have borne witness to racial violence and shared their footage on social media, making injustice more visible. Photos and videos have fostered empathy and proved powerful tools for holding perpetrators of violence to account. Footage of Floyd’s murder was shown to the world—and to the jury that convicted Derek Chauvin. Video of Arbery’s killing appears to have been instrumental in Cobb County’s senior assistant district attorney’s successful prosecution of his killers.
Yet images of Black suffering can also normalize it, further devaluing Black lives. Still, the democratization of the means to capture and disseminate images has helped ensure that racial violence cannot flourish in secrecy.
Eye-opening images can sometimes help right wrongs, renewing faith that “these days of challenge” can help “make America what it ought to be”—the hope that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in 1968, on the eve of his assassination in Memphis.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School.
Racial resentment in a new guise By Angie Maxwell
A disturbingly memorable moment for me in 2021 was watching the parents of elementary school children take their turns berating my family’s local school board members about so-called “Critical Race Theory,” and hearing their supporters cheer and applaud from the lobby hallway to which they had been relegated for refusing to wear masks.
Their comments ranged from generic talking points that I recognized as having come from the national conservative organizations manufacturing the anti-CRT outrage to disjointed diatribes against masks, vaccines, globalism and government “co-parenting.” The information deluging these folks may have been fake, but I could see clearly that their emotional reactions to it—mostly rage—were very, very real.
Racial resentment is a hell of a drug. Add to it a general sense of (faux) entitlement, the hatred that results from decades of “us vs. them” polarization (including the working mom/stay-at-home mom wars) and a shot of Christian nationalism, and the resulting cocktail is so potent that it renders wild conspiracy theories credible, lost causes winnable and democracies vulnerable.
Maybe most disturbing is that this intoxicating recipe for racial resentment isn’t new. It’s just got a fancy new acronym for its name on the menu, and too many Republican leaders will only continue to serve it to their base in the year ahead.
Angie Maxwell is an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.
The never-ending desire to suppress some Americans’ votes By Theodore R. Johnson
This year alone, 19 states passed laws making it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Not
How 2021 unmasked the crumbling facade of a tolerant America
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