Although the jury is still out on whether 2021 has been a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the hellacious 12 months that made up 2020, one thing is for sure — it’s been a wild ride. A lot has happened, especially for people of color. From the good, bad, the not so bad, bizarre, the somewhat funny, and the flat-out ugly — in no particular order — here are 10 stories that impacted people of color in 2021.
1. Vice President Kamala Harris makes history
First and foremost, Kamala Harris became the first Black, Indian, and woman vice president of the United States of America. That right there is a mic drop.
2. Increased vaccine and Covid-19 measures
Of course, all matters Covid-19 related and adjacent are at the top of the list. In January, during his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed a total of 10 executive orders to combat the coronavirus that had — and continues to — rock the nation. Specifically, President Biden aimed his efforts toward vaccination accessibility. Although both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were made available to all adults over 16 years of age in December 2020, there was a severe lag in vaccination rates, and the majority of adults remained unvaccinated by the end of January 2021. More specifically, the number of vaccinated adults among people of color was almost dismal. Biden also directed his efforts toward emphasizing the importance of mask-wearing and required masks to be worn in airports and certain types of public transportation such as ships, intercity buses, airplanes, and trains.
Just a few months later, in March, Biden directed states to make all adults eligible for coronavirus vaccinations no later than May 1 to assist the country’s return to some sense of normalcy by the beginning of July, which he did — to an extent. For many, the continued push for vaccination accessibility and mandated mask-wearing played a significant role in the first drop in Covid-19 cases that we saw during the spring and early summer of 2021. These measures also significantly impacted people of color, many of whom were more vulnerable to contracting the virus, experiencing more severe and sometimes even deadlier symptoms after contracting the virus, and who face lowered access to affordable and quality medical care. Targeted efforts to slow down the virus’s spread also helped address some of the disparities that we saw among people of color relative to the virus. Next up, omicron!
3. Schools reopening
In 2020, for many, it felt as though the world stopped for almost a full year. Life as we knew it was no longer. Indoor dining was a thing of the past, and we could no longer run into the mall to pick up a quick item or even kick up our feet with a bucket of greasy popcorn to watch the latest blockbuster at the movie theater. Schools were also closed, and students — from as young as three through adults — were forced to adjust to a foreign and very new approach to learning: fully online instruction.
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Online learning further exacerbated existing disparities and created new ones for many families and students of color. Challenges such as malnutrition, childcare, and students falling further behind became significant challenges for many students and their caregivers who had already struggled in these areas before the pandemic. Not to mention the lack of social interaction and connection that all students missed during this time. Well, in February 2021, that all changed. At the beginning of 2021, the CDC released guidance for schools to follow to begin safely reopening for in-person learning. Simultaneously, the Department of Education released the first volume of its guidance for in-person learning to supplement the CDC’s recommendations.
Despite some of the concerning issues that online learning caused for many students and their families, the decision to reopen schools was not met with a resounding celebration. Many families of color were frightened by the prospect of their little one contracting the virus, and even worse, spreading it to the rest of their family — especially students who live with family members or caregivers who are elderly or have preexisting health conditions. When schools first began reopening, there were no huge reported outbreaks. However, in more recent news with the new omicron variant on the loose, many schools have experienced outbreaks and have decided to make a sharp return back to online learning — at least temporarily. I suppose we will have to wait and see what’s in store for students of color and their families at the start of 2022.
4. Continued hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans
With the divisive rhetoric of the previously administration, who described the coronavirus as “the China virus” and “kung flu,” sadly, it’s no surprise that hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans saw a sharp increase in 2020. In fact, despite overall hate crime numbers declining by about 6%, hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans increased by almost 150% in 16 of the largest U.S. cities last year. Unfortunately, this horrific trend continued into 2021, and stories like the 64-year-old grandmother who was assaulted and robbed in San Jose, California, or the 52-year-old Asian American woman shot in the head with a flare gun have made Asian Americans increasingly more fearful for their physical safety. According to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one in four Asian Americans feared that members of their household would be attacked or threatened in the past few months because of their race or ethnicity.
5. Trials that sparked mild contentment and deeply rooted resentment
The Derek Chauvin trial perhaps marked the beginning of 2021’s most controversial and publicized trials. On April 20, 2021, Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty of murdering George Floyd and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison on June 25. Although many celebrated the verdict as an indication of the judicial system working in favor of the Black community and people of color overall, others cautioned people of color not to bring out their proverbial champagne flutes to toast just yet. Instead of being pacified by one conviction as representative of justice for George Floyd, Chauvin’s conviction was simply a police officer being held accountable and facing the consequences for being murderous.
As the year went on, we continued on a roller coaster of emotions that were further shaken by the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the trial for the three men responsible for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. On November 19, 2021, Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges associated with shooting and killing two men at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — a verdict that left people of color shell-shocked and feeling invisible and silenced. But just one week later, on November 24, William “Roddie” Bryan, Travis McMichael, and Gregory McMichael were all found guilty of murdering Arbery on November 24, 2021. Through it all, it feels like people of color have shared a starring role on a sad, sick, and very serious episode of Pranked — being teased and tormented by differing trial outcomes that should have all shared firm guilty verdicts but sadly, did not. Although we will take the wins, the losses further prove that we have a long way to go before the justice system works effectively for all its citizens — including people of color.
6. Banning critical race theory in schools
Although no school districts have come forward with formal plans to teach critical race theory (CRT) in their curriculum, White Americans — more specifically, White conservatives — have taken CRT to task and have worked overtime to ban it. Overwhelmingly, critics of CRT have demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about the theory and its tenants. Yet, they have dug their heels in to oppose the reality that American values, norms, and mores are centered and rooted in racist and White supremacist ideology. This explains why eight states, including Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina, have passed legislation to ban the theory in schools. Additionally, Florida, Utah, and Oklahoma school boards have introduced new guidelines barring CRT-related discussions.
More specifically, local school boards in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia, and almost 20 other states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation. Most state bills do not explicitly mention “critical race theory.” But they explicitly ban any discussion, training, or adaptation of the belief that the U.S. is inherently racist and conversations about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. It sounds like many schools will continue pushing more turkey cut out activities during Thanksgiving and lessons around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech as a complete whitewashed documentation of the history of racism in our country.
7. The abortion ban
Texas is not only known for cowboy boots, football, fantastic BBQ, and queso dip. They are also the first state to ban abortion in the U.S. On September 1, 2021, the Lone Star State passed an act to effectively ban abortion after detecting an unborn child’s heartbeat, which usually occurs after about six weeks of pregnancy and before most women learn that they are expecting. But Texas lawmakers didn’t stop there. The act affectionately referred to as the Texas Heartbeat Act, allows everyday people like ourselves to sue abortion providers and anyone else who assists a woman with terminating a pregnancy — including those who give a woman a ride to a clinic or provide financial assistance to obtain a termination. Private citizens who bring these suits don’t need to show any connection to those they are suing, and the law makes no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest.
Since September, other states have jumped on the bandwagon to impede women’s reproductive rights. In fact, 21 states have positioned themselves to immediately ban or acutely curtail access to abortions if the Supreme Court chooses to overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade. However, one of the most central concerns behind the ban is that some of the lawmakers who support the ban represent states with large numbers of Black and Latino residents and also have the most compromised and vulnerable health care systems. For example, a study recently found that Black infants in Texas are twice as likely as White infants to die before their first birthday.
While Texas does not report deaths among new mothers by race, it’s been reported that the national Black maternal mortality rate was 44 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019 compared to a rate of barely 18 White deaths. And as an overall indicator of the inequity of the Texas health care system, in 2018, Black Texas residents were almost twice as likely as Whites to die of preventable conditions because they did not get the health care they needed. The state of Mississippi is not much better. Many fear abortion bans will impose restrictions on women’s reproductive rights that will intensify the vulnerabilities in these states’ health care systems and further compound racial disparities in maternal health.
8. The media’s obsession with missing white women
The family of Gabby Petito reported the young woman missing on September 11, and the media immediately flocked to cover her disappearance to assist in locating her safe and sound. Although Petito’s disappearance deserved media attention, many expressed concerns over inequitable media coverage of missing person cases. Mainstream media seems overly fascinated with covering endangered or missing White women but remain disinterested in cases involving women from racially and ethnically marginalized groups. The late PBS anchor and best-selling author, Gwen Ifill, coined the term “missing White women syndrome” to better illustrate the continued invisibility, forced silence, and dehumanization of the lives of Black women in juxtaposition to the immense value centered around the well-being and safety of White women.
While Petito continued to trend on almost every social media platform for weeks, numerous missing cases of people of color went unacknowledged: Emily Lu, a 72-year-old Chinese American woman whose body was found in July after being missing for two months; Jelani Day, who was last seen alive on August 24 but found floating in the Illinois River one week later; Daniel Robinson, a Black geologist who has been missing since June 23; and countless other missing people of color who have remained nameless to everyone but those who love them.
9. R. Kelly found guilty
In September, R & B singer extraordinaire R. Kelly was found guilty of nine charges, including bribery, forced labor, kidnapping, exploitation of a child, racketeering involving six alleged victims, and sexual trafficking across state lines. This was a long time coming considering allegations of abuse toward Black young boys and girls spanned over almost three decades. During which time, R. Kelly hid in plain sight, calling himself the pied piper — a fictional character who lured and kidnapped children with his flute — by preying on Black women, men, and children. I would be willing to guess if he preyed on White women, men, and children, his time would’ve been up years ago.
10. Jussie Smollett’s strange testimony and trial
The former Empire actor was found guilty earlier this month for reporting a fake hate crime in 2019. The story of Smollett allegedly paying two brothers to fake an attack against him had been a controversial topic, and many have presented different theories about why he may have staged the altercation. Despite whether a person believes the actor’s guilt or innocence — one thing is for sure. His recent trial was nothing short of odd and bizarre.
During his trial, Smollett’s testimony was riveting at best and a bit nutty at worst. Despite damming video footage of the actor and the two brothers performing a “dry run” of the attack, Smollett maintained that the incident was not a hoax and then proceeded to share details about drug use, masturbation, bathhouses and also conveniently found a way to throw CNN’s Don Lemon under the bus all while doing so. This is not an indictment on the actor’s guilt or innocence but a reflection of how absurdly kooky his testimony was during the trial. Needless to say, for many, the verdict was not a surprise.