In 2016, a year that’s been marked with more than its fair share of tragedy and high-profile deaths, things in America have been especially grim when it comes to dealing with racism.
Central to that is Donald Trump’s election win despite (or because of, depending on your analysis) his unabashedly racist remarks and promises during his campaign to sanction discrimination. He went on to appoint Steve Bannon, whose primary professional accomplishment was mainstreaming white nationalism at the helm of the website Breitbart, as his "chief strategist and senior counselor." Next, he pegged Jeff Sessions, who in 1986 was deemed too racist to be a federal judge, as the next likely head of the Department of Justice.
Trump has loudly celebrated black people (to be clear, not all potential Clinton supporters, just black people) who didn’t vote, since their votes likely would not have been for him. And it looks like he hasn’t let go of his campaign trail idea that Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States. Asked by reporters this week whether he’d reevaluate this stance — and his proposed registry of Muslim citizens — he replied, "You know my plans."
It’s no wonder civil rights advocates fear that decades of progress will be reversed under Trump’s administration — or that the white nationalists who say they’ve been emboldened by his win are delighted to make the same prediction.
But the same night Trump was elected, something else happened. The number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled: Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) won their races, and they’ll join Mazie Hirono, a Japanese-American woman who represents Hawaii. Those wins boosted the count from one woman of color in the US Senate to four. Of course, four is still a small number considering there are 100 Senate seats. But it’s a significant increase — and the largest leap in any one election.
Largely unnoticed amid shock over Trump’s win and panic about what his presidency would mean for the country, this was a moment that stood out against the rest of 2016 as a sign of progress — a moment when racism didn’t appear to win. And it wasn’t the only one.
Women of color had an incredible Olympics — in terms of medals and representation
Simone Manuel made history when she became the first black American woman in the Olympics to earn an individual swimming gold medal and the first African-American woman to win an individual medal. The groundbreaking win in the 100-meter freestyle event, where Manuel tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, would be worth celebrating in the context of any sport. But the particularly racist history of American swimming pools — and resulting lack of opportunities for black swimmers for decades — makes it an even more poignant victory.
Meanwhile, in gymnastics Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez made up the most racially and ethnically diverse group of Olympic athletes in the US team’s history. Biles and Douglas are African-American, Hernandez is Latina, and Kocian and Raisman (who is Jewish) are both white. Fans cheered the sign of inclusiveness in a sport that in the United States has historically had mostly white participants and, on a global level, is still plagued by lazy stereotypes about the abilities of athletes who aren’t white. In the words of the social media celebrations of the many fans who shared images of the five leotard-clad young women, "Representation matters!" As a bonus, the team won gold.
The first Somali-American lawmaker was elected, and got right to work speaking out about bigotry
Ilhan Omar’s November 8 election to Minnesota’s House of Representatives made her America’s first Somali-American lawmaker. She won southeast Minneapolis’s House District 60B seat with 80 percent of the vote.
The celebrations around her win were followed by sobering news when Omar, who is Muslim, reported being harassed by a Washington, DC, cab driver who called her "ISIS" and threatened to remover her hijab. But thanks to the higher profile that came with her new office, her account of the incident and her graceful reaction ("I pray for his humanity and for all those who harbor hate in their hearts") recounted on her Facebook page received national attention.
Speaking out about the incident was one of the first small ways she made good on the promises she made in her acceptance speech, in which she told supporters, "Injustices that are rooted in our society are the root of all of our problems. I will never give up fighting for you, and I hope you never give up fighting for me."
Courts eviscerated voter ID laws meant to keep black people from voting
In July, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s requirement that voters show certain identification at the polls. The law was enacted after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder freed up states with histories of discriminatory practices from the requirement of federal approval before making new voting rules. And the judges’ decision minced no words: The law was "passed with racially discriminatory intent."
The ruling provided refreshing clarity. When it comes to restrictive voting laws, as J. Gerald Hebert and Danielle Lang wrote for the Washington Post, "This racial strategy is just barely below the surface of many of these laws," and is often vehemently denied.
Passing laws that are neutral on their face but make it harder for certain groups to cast ballots will be tougher to do going forward: The three-judge panel wrote that legislatures had created the law to "target voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party. Even if done for partisan ends, that constituted racial discrimination."
In August, a divided Supreme Court’s ruling denied North Carolina’s request to reinstate the law and let the ruling stand. Allison Riggs, a lawyer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told the New York Times, "This decision opens the door for fair and full access to the democratic process for all voters."
A court convicted a white man who killed black people
On December 15, Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist who killed nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, was found guilty on all 33 charges, including the nine murder charges, against him. He’d confessed to the crime, saying, "I went to that church in Charleston, and I did it," so, legally speaking, there shouldn’t have been much doubt about what the outcome of his trial would be.
But for plenty of people left skeptical of whether a court would deliver justice for black victims, it indeed did. Does relief that racism didn’t derail a cut-and-dried case reflect a pretty low standard? Definitely. But here we are.
In one church basement, people worked to tackle their own racism, proving that this is actually an option
In August, North Carolina’s WCNC reported that a "Racists Anonymous" group had begun holding meetings in Concord’s Trinity United Church of Christ fellowship hall.
The news was, understandably, met with skepticism — was this group "a trap," as a Twitter used fretted? Was it a place of support for bigoted views? "If this is real this is so disgusting ... ashamed of them," said one Twitter user. But a closer look revealed that the group didn’t aim to do either of these things.
Instead, a Racists Anonymous organizer told WCNC, "[The goal is to] change systematic racism in the United States of America." The leader, Trinity United’s Rev. Nathan King, said the group’s goal was to "deal with the racism" among members and to "eliminate the racism within ourselves."
The techniques for that elimination weren’t made totally clear, but during a year in which racism was more politically powerful and hotly debated than usual, it was refreshing to learn that, in one fellowship hall at least, people were examining and remedying their own racism instead of finding ways to redefine the term so it wouldn’t apply to them. Even combined with the existence of organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people against racism, it would be a stretch to say this approach is the beginning of a trend. But it’s a reminder that it’s possible.
University of Texas’s tactics for creating a racially diverse student body were okayed
In July, the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions survived a Supreme Court challenge. The Court ruled 4-3 that the procedures the University of Texas used to decide which students to admit were constitutional, after a challenge by Texas student Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the school in 2008.
As Vox’s Libby Nelson reported, the academically selective UT Austin has specific goals for the diversity of its student body, and uses race as one factor to decide who, in addition to the top 10 percent of students in each high school class across Texas, is admitted. The Court’s majority was convinced by the university's argument that it could not achieve those goals in any other way.
Because the school’s plan is unique, the decision didn’t provide much guidance on how other universities could ensure their admissions procedures were constitutional — and a note in the decision warned, "It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection," about how to achieve its goals.
Still, as City University of New York law professor Victor Goode wrote for Colorlines, "This case represents a rare, important victory for the civil rights community and leaves the door open for educators to continue employing carefully crafted affirmative admissions plans." The result: a diverse student body that, as UT has argued, is actually a good thing for students of all races.
A modern, multicultural musical made a statement — literally
Hamilton, the hit musical that tells the story of the Founding Fathers with a multicultural cast and a rap and pop soundtrack, has been wildly successful. Forbes reported that it beat record-holder Wicked for highest gross in a single week, bringing in $3.26 million over Thanksgiving. The $303-per-seat ticket price was the highest in history.
Beyond the ways these economic measures powerfully affirmed an appetite for diversity onstage, the cast made a point to connect the production’s cultural significance to real life: namely, the threats to nonwhite Americans and immigrants indicated by the Trump campaign. Shortly after the election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence made a visit to the theater. That night, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon called out to him, and delivered the following speech as the rest of the cast linked arms behind him:
Vice-president elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do.
We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.
But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
We truly thank you for sharing this show — this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
An artistic ode to black women dominated the charts — and managed to get a Black Panther theme into the Super Bowl halftime show
Celebrated as an "ode to black womanhood" and a "revolutionary work of black feminism," Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade (arguably a feature film), was another massive pop culture success that put marginalized identities at its center, and won. It debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 in the last week in April and made Beyoncé the first artist to top the list with each of her six albums. It broke a slew of other records, and the BBC dubbed it music critics’ favorite album of the year.
The lead single, "Formation," was its own triumph: The Daily Beast called the song "a fiery black power anthem and call to arms." Rolling Stone declared that "in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, 'Formation' felt downright necessary." And Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance of the powerful song, complete with dancers with Afros and Black Panther–inspired costumes, brought the issues at the center of "Formation" — mainly, police brutality and the movement for black lives — right into America’s living rooms, whether or not they were inclined to agree.
A "genius" champion for immigrant children got $625,000 to further his work
Ahilan Arulanantham is the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and an advocate for children as young as 3 years old who’ve fled their home countries and are facing deportation. This year, he received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant — a $625,000 check to honor his work and help him to do more of it.
He was chosen for his advocacy and successful litigation of a series of landmark cases that expanded immigrant detainees’ access to legal representation and limited the government’s power to detain them indefinitely.
"Through his incremental approach and careful selection of cases, Arulanantham works to demonstrate the human costs of denying due process to immigrants and to set vital precedents to expand the rights of non-citizens," the foundation wrote in its announcement. Arulanantham told Fusion that "it doesn’t take a genius" to understand the purpose of his work: Kids facing deportation can’t defend themselves in court against professional government prosecutors.
Obama made it much harder for Trump to build his "Muslim registry"
As Vox’s Dara Lind has reported, from 2002 to 2011 a version of one of Donald Trump’s most extreme proposals was standard US government policy: requiring certain people in the US on visas from Muslim-majority countries to register with the government.
President Obama suspended the program and stopped using it to track anyone in 2011, and his White House has spoken strongly against any sort of discrimination against Muslim immigrants. But while the Obama administration’s rhetoric made it clear they thought the program was a bad idea, they didn’t fully get rid of it. What they did, instead, was just clear out the list of countries from which people would be registered, Lind explained.
That means the program’s tools, until recently, were still available for the Trump administration to use for the kind of registry Trump has said he’d like to see.
Not anymore. Lind reported Thursday:
The Department of Homeland Security published a regulation that would totally get rid of the National Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) — forcing the Trump administration to take the time to create something new, and giving civil rights groups an opportunity to stop them.
The regulation goes into effect Friday, December 23, well before President Trump is inaugurated. So when his administration takes office — if it’s serious about finding a way to register people from Muslim-majority countries in the US — it’s going to have to find another way to do it.
Depending on one’s outlook, these moments could be interpreted as confirmation that there’s a reason for hope, or as a spotty series of exceptions to the many reasons to despair about race in America. While none of them rival Trump’s win when it comes to the scope of their potential impact, they’re reminders that for people who would like to see progress toward racial equality (and, with the very vocal rise of white nationalists, it’s clearer than ever that that’s not everyone), there were at least a handful of days when 2016 wasn’t a disaster.