As we move into another brand new year, it is important to remember the events of the previous one. As evidence of this is the fact that on December 19, 2014, www.Gallup.com released its most recent findings revealing that many Americans see race relations as a major issue facing the nation. In an article written by journalist Justin McCarthy, where he provides a number of statistics from the study, the same poll indicated that 13 percent of those interviewed believed that that the issue (race relations) was the most important issues facing the nation. This was the highest figure that Gallup had recorded since 1992 when the nation was struggling to come to terms with the dramatic events resulting from the Rodney King verdict.
From 1992 to 2014, the percentage of Americans who felt that race relations/racism is America's most pressing problem hovered between 0 to 5 percent. Such a notable increase to 13 percent is no doubt related to the dramatic events and incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., Cleveland Ohio, Philadelphia, Pa. and other cities. It is important to note that Gallup also discovered that a growing percentage of non-whites have lost considerable confidence in the ability of police officers to protect them.
The same lack of trust was similar in regards to a perceived deficiency in ethical standards among police by minority communities.
The fact is that race has always been a major issue in America. For many blacks and other non-whites, it has been the perennial issue. When W. E. B. Du Bois stated that "the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line," he was right on target. In fact, the problem has continued into the 21st century. In the '50s and '60s, the topic was frequently at the center of national debate. This was largely due to the modern civil rights movement that dominated public policy and largely saturated the popular culture. In 1963, 52 percent of Americans stated that race was the most pivotal problem facing America. Over the past half century, the topic has fluctuated in how important the public views its importance.
Truth be told, with a relentless slew of tragedies and setbacks affecting black Americans, (in particular black men), 2014 is not likely to be a year that many black men (or people of color in general) will look back on with undiluted pleasure. The wealth gap between the races (already significant) is growing wider. College is all but a distant wish for too many black youth (and low income youths of all races) as they are increasingly being priced out of higher education. The deaths of black men (and some women) at the hands of law enforcement have sent shock waves throughout much of the black community and some other communities as well. It was indeed, a very challenging year.
That being said, no reasonable person can argue that race relations are the same as they were 50 years ago. They have significantly improved since the mid-'60s when many black people (especially in the South) were still largely living under a racial apartheid system rife with second class status as many black people in the region were denied their constitutional right to vote. The recent and provocative movie Selma masterfully directed by Ava DuVernay and accompanied with mesmerizing, powerhouse performances by David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson and others, deftly addresses this issue. Such a massive injustice eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act being passed by congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this monumental event.
Despite what some may think, that nation has indeed come a considerable distance from that time. A black man as President of The United States would have been all but incomprehensible in 1965. In fact, very few people of all races would have even dared to imagine such a prospect. While the current situation is somewhat volatile, the mass protests in Ferguson, New York City, Berkeley, Calif., on multiple college campuses by undergraduate and graduate students, law students, medical students, college presidents, celebrities and other influential citizens across racial and economic lines is inspirational as well as hopeful. The situation can only get better.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a Professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of Beginning A Career in Academia:A Guide for Graduate Student s of Color. (Routledge Press, 2014).