The saying goes that hindsight is 20/20. Well, two years after the “racial reckoning” of summer 2020, some might say that our hindsight is still a bit blurry when it comes to equality and racial justice. That summer, ongoing protests broke out in response to the killing of multiple unarmed Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Cities across the U.S. experienced large-scale demonstrations that lasted weeks, shedding light on perpetual issues of racism and discrimination in America. Now, as we repeat “I can’t breathe” and “say their names” in response to a tragically familiar onslaught of Black massacres in 2022, it begs the question: What, if anything, did summer 2020 teach us about racism, social justice, and the hope for equality in the U.S.?
Looking Back at Summer 2020
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes. People on the street watched and recorded in horror as Floyd repeated to the officer that he couldn’t breathe. Earlier in the year, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police officers conducting a botched “no-knock” raid while sleeping in her Louisville apartment. And before that, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by white racists while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood. The collective carnage was devastating, and people were rightfully outraged. Floyd’s murder was the last straw, of sorts, and Americans across the country protested the senseless, unnecessary, and racist attacks for months.
It felt like a shift was taking place as people banded together, shared information about demonstrations and resources, and, in what might have been the first time ever, spoke freely and honestly about racial injustices experienced by the Black community. Major companies even joined the conversation, releasing public statements condemning racism and alleging solidarity with Black Americans. Political correctness was seemingly replaced with unapologetic action—or so we thought. Soon enough, issues of anti-Black racism were overshadowed by the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Much of the fervor surrounding basic rights for Black Americans subdued, but racism and discrimination did not.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Since 2020, justice and equality for Black Americans have only improved by 0.2 percent, according to the National Urban League’s 2022 “State of Black America” report. The report is released yearly and measures factors such as economics, social justice, health, civic engagement, and education for Black Americans compared to that of white Americans. While there have been increases in the median household income and a narrowing of the poverty gap for Black Americans, decreased access to health insurance, increased firearm-related deaths, and decreased civic engagement prevented a higher rate of improvement for Black Americans between 2020 and 2022. Overall, the Urban League determined that Black Americans only have 73.9 percent of the equality that white Americans have.
The documented improvements for the state of Black America are encouraging only until we examine the numbers and see that disparity between Black and white Americans are still extreme. Even with increases in median household income, there is a 37 percent difference with Black Americans having earned $43,862 compared to white Americans at $69,823. Black women are 59 percent more likely to die from childbirth than white women, the life expectancy for Black people is four years less than white people, Black men are 52 percent more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, and Black men are three times more likely to be jailed if they are arrested.
An area of most concern in the Urban League’s 2022 report is civic engagement. Voting rights are under attack in America, and gerrymandering, voter suppression, election sabotage, and intimidation are commonly used tactics to deter Black Americans from voting or prevent their votes from carrying significance. This is a direct response to the increase in voter turnout during the 2020 election. Coming off the heels of the “racial reckoning” summer and several social policy blunders by former president Trump, voter turnout was the highest it’s been since 1980. But when there’s action, there’s also reaction. Because of President Biden’s win, and the subsequent “big lie” maintained by conservative politicians, 19 states passed 34 voter suppression laws in 2021, and more than 152 pieces of restrictive legislation carried over into 2022 for legislative consideration.
Closing the Gap of Systemic Racism
Injustices facing Black Americans are real, known, documented, and crippling. The National Urban League’s “State of Black America” report is a sobering reality that overcoming systemic racism in America is an agonizingly slow process. In the span of two years, a life of full equality for Black Americans only became 0.2 percent closer. Zero. Point. Two. If the summer of 2020 taught us anything, it would be to prepare for the backlash. For as many strides that Black Americans make, opposition works double-time to squelch progress and maintain systems of discrimination and bigotry. Coupled with other political attempts to limit Americans’ rights as a whole, the uphill battle for equality will be that much more difficult for Black Americans.
Fighting collective and racialized battles at the same time is nothing new to Black Americans, and neither is the “one step forward, two steps back” pattern. While it can feel defeating and pointless to continue fighting for trickling equality, it’s a fight that countless people have endured before us and one that must continue no matter how slow the progress. We have many advantages today that racial justice advocates of the past didn’t have, though, and those advantages add to our glimmers of hope. Social media allows us to have deeper, more transformative conversations, younger millennials and the Gen Z generation are actively outspoken and socially aware, American sports and music industries are more vocal about racial injustice, societal recognition of Black history and experiences are more common, and financial contributions to racial justice and civil rights groups have increased.
One way that we can tell progress is happening is by the intensity of counterattacks against progress, and we’re currently witnessing one of America’s most potent attempts to maintain systemic racism. While it’s frustrating, it also means we’re that much closer to the change that’s been needed for centuries. This isn’t the time to let up or give up. Instead, it’s time for each of us to rise to the occasion like never before by embodying and advocating for liberty and justice for all. The baton has been passed to us, and it’s our turn to run the race for equality.