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End of a decade: What the 2010s, Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter meant for Americans

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It was a decade of progress.

Former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was elected for a second term.

Protesters and professional athletes took a stand against police killings of black men.

Social media became the platform for calls for racial justice, sparking the launch of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.

The 2010s were, by all means, monumental for black activism, giving many Americans hope that their voices might be heard.

It was a decade, however, that also saw the election of President Donald Trump – who pledged to support tougher law enforcement and limit immigration – as well as renewed activity from the white nationalist movement, resulting in mass shootings and other incidents of domestic terrorism against people of color.

Civil rights activists now say more must be done in the new decade to advance the rights of black people in the U.S. and build on the progress made since 2010.

“We seem to have taken significant steps forward, but it also feels like we have taken significant steps backward," said Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. “The policy changes that we need have not yet been manifested."

Martin Luther King speaks in Atlanta in 1960.
Martin Luther King speaks in Atlanta in 1960.

King said movements such as Black Lives Matter motivated young organizers across the country to protest against violence and systemic racism toward black people. In many ways, that activism was a continuation of the work civil rights leaders started in the 1960s. But while the Black Lives Matter message resonated for much of the decade, King said, not much has changed in how police officers treat people of color.

Since 2012, when George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was black, in Sanford, Florida, sparking activism that would become the Black Lives Matter movement, many black men and women continue to die at the hands of police. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this year, about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in the U.S. can expect to be killed by police. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during interactions with law enforcement. Meanwhile, black women are 1.4 times more likely than white women to be killed by police.

The nation is also struggling to overcome injustices such as voter suppression, disparities in the education system and housing inequalities that target people of color, activists say.

A survey released earlier this year by the non-partisan Pew Research Center revealed nearly 6 in 10 Americans said race relations in the country were bad. And 56% said Trump made race relations worse. Conversely, in 2009, 41% of Americans said race relations had gotten better with Obama's presidency, while 22% said they had gotten worse, according to a Gallup Poll.

Standing up for black lives

Martin's slaying followed by the acquittal of Zimmerman in 2013 marked a pivotal point for race relations in this decade. Millions were protesting across the country, demanding an end to the racial profiling of black men. Some wore hoodies to the protests – symbolizing what Martin wore the night Zimmerman shot him as the teenager walked to his father's fiancée's house from a nearby convenience store.

Soon after the shooting, Obama acknowledged that Martin's death proved the United States was still not a post-racial society. "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said during a news conference at the White House. "All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves."

On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder. That same day, the Black Lives Matter organization was officially launched.

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said the movement exposed what was already happening to black people in black communities. It also inspired a new generation of activists – millennials and Gen Zers – to fight for equality, she said.

Their efforts, however, have been challenged by a growing white supremacy movement. In 2018, there was an almost 50% increase in total white nationalist groups, jumping to 148 from 100, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"The rise of white nationalism has everything to do with the backlash against the black uprising," Cullors said. "It is critical that we situate what has happened in the last 10 years as part of a longer history of this happening."

Two years after Martin's death, the nation became divided once again when Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The St. Louis suburb became the center of unrest when demonstrations, violence and looting erupted.

The crowds wanted police to stop racial profiling. Ferguson police had a history of unfairly targeting black people, but the Obama administration's Department of Justice ultimately concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense.

Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, "Hands up, Don't Shoot", as police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, "Hands up, Don't Shoot", as police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

The next five years would bring more controversial deaths of black people. Activists maintain that racism motivated every incident:

  • In July 2014, Eric Garner died when New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold while arresting him as Garner pleaded, "I can't breathe." Police had approached Garner on suspicion of selling cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.

  • In November 2014, Tamir Rice, 12, a boy holding a toy gun in a park, was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer.

  • In April 2015, Freddie Gray, 25, died after Baltimore police detained him in the back of a police van unbuckled. His neck and spine were damaged beyond repair.

  • In June 2015, self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

  • In July 2015, Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell, three days after a Texas police officer pulled her from her car and threw her to the ground because she refused to put out her cigarette during a traffic stop. Police say Bland committed suicide. #WhatHappenedToSandraBland trended nationwide as activists questioned how she was treated.

  • In 2016, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop as his girlfriend live-streamed the incident.

  • In October 2019, a white police officer fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson, 28, as she played video games with her 8-year-old nephew inside her home in Fort Worth, Texas.

Experts say some of these incidents were better documented in the 2010s because of advancements in technology. Police body cameras, dash cameras and cellphone videos from witnesses provided unprecedented evidence for law enforcement officials, as well as the American public.

For example, a police dash cam video recorded Yanez shooting Castile during the traffic stop. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was sitting in the passenger seat, also recorded the moments after the shooting on a Facebook Live video. Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the shooting, despite protests from the community.

Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, said she was not surprised when the jury acquitted Yanez. Castile said she has watched police get away with shooting black men her entire life.

With hopes of saving lives, Castile said she is working with the state of Minnesota to distribute a manual that tells drivers what to do if they are carrying a gun and get pulled over by police.

Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, listens on during a press conference on Nov. 16, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed charges today against St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Castile during a traffic stop.
Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, listens on during a press conference on Nov. 16, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed charges today against St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Castile during a traffic stop.

“There is never a reason why the police kill our black men," Castile said. "But there are a hell of a lot of excuses, and we are trying to eliminate some of the excuses."

Robert Bennett, a Minneapolis-based attorney for the Castile family, said he remains hopeful that with "hard evidence" from cameras and public awareness, more police will be convicted of shooting black men when appropriate.

One sign of progress was in October 2018 when Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Laquan McDonald, 17, as he walked away from police.

Police initially reported that McDonald, who was black, refused to put down a knife he was carrying and lunged at them. But when the court ordered police to release the dash cam video, it showed McDonald walking away from police when he was shot.

"It doesn’t give the police as much room to wiggle," Bennett said of the cameras. “There’s some reason to think they might be held accountable at some point."

Entertainment and sports worlds see big moments in black history

The fight for equality also showed up in sports and entertainment this decade.

One of the most discussed events came in August 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick said he could not show pride for a flag in a country that oppresses black people.

San Francisco 49ers' Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on Oct 6, 2016.
San Francisco 49ers' Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on Oct 6, 2016.

Critics blasted Kaepernick for his stance, characterizing him as a divisive figure. In August 2016, Trump said maybe Kaepernick "should find a country that works better for him.” In September 2017, Trump said NFL owners should "get that son of a bitch off the field" when any players protest during the national anthem. Kaepernick has gone unsigned since 2017 and has accused the NFL of blackballing him because of his political statements.

Kenneth B. Nunn, professor of law at the University of Florida, said the backlash toward Kaepernick hurts the movement for equality because a black man is being punished for speaking out against police brutality.

"It seems to be a social message of rejection and sort of ostracizes Kaepernick and members of the Black Lives Matter movement," Nunn said. “We are looking at decades of a setback for African American progress."

Black celebrities also spoke out against the Academy Awards in 2016 when, for the second year in a row, no actors of color received an acting nomination. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and other actors threatened to boycott the show.

A year later, in 2017, "Moonlight" became the first film with an all-black cast to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Other milestones for black America this decade included Beyonce being the first black woman to headline Coachella in California in April 2018, and Meghan Markle, a mixed black and white woman from Los Angeles, marrying Prince Henry in the United Kingdom in May 2018.

From Obama to Trump in the White House

These high-profile moments in black history, as well as racial anxiety among some white voters from having a black president for the first half of the decade, might have contributed to Trump winning his election in 2016, Nunn said.

President Donald Trump talks with former President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to Obama's departure to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Jan. 20, 2017.
President Donald Trump talks with former President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to Obama's departure to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Jan. 20, 2017.

Obama often defended the Black Lives Matter movement and met with young civil rights activists at the White House in 2014. Under his administration, the Department of Justice invested in training and research to help reduce implicit bias in police departments. It also provided millions of dollars to agencies with community policing initiatives.

In 2017, Trump's administration ended the program and announced it would instead focus on providing support for officers fighting gangs, drugs and violent crime. Trump would later tell police they didn't have to be nice to suspects.

Trump, meanwhile, has at times been labeled a racist for his comments and tweets toward Latinos, black people and Muslims during his time in office. In January 2018, the president referred to Haiti and black-majority nations in Africa as "shithole countries" during a meeting to discuss the U.S. visa lottery.

In July, he told four minority, liberal congresswomen, known as "the Squad," to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came." Trump also drew criticism when he called a majority-black congressional district in Baltimore "a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess."

“Not only has he made race relations worse, but he has done so in ways that are both explicit and subtle," Nunn said.

What will the next 10 years bring?

Despite making little progress with racial equality in the 2010s, activists say they are still optimistic.

Cullors said she hopes the nation is seeing the last vestiges of white nationalism in the Trump era. To make more progress, young activists need to engage in politics and prepare to run for office, Cullors said.

"I think racism has to die off with structures, too," Cullors said. "We have to change these policies … the systems in place, the policies that hold people back."

Castile said policymakers are more likely to listen to people sitting at the table with them compared with protesters.

“We have a long way to go because once you turn social issues into political issues, then you have a bunch of red tape," Castile said. "But I've got so much hope, and I spend a lot of time talking to leaders."

King said progress in the next decade will require drastic changes to law enforcement practices, including training for police, community policing and civilian review boards. He is also working to end voter suppression and encouraging more voter registration and voter education efforts.

King acknowledged that these changes likely won't happen soon. But he hopes future leaders will move the nation forward.

“We have to believe the best is yet to come," King said. “I have great hope for the generations behind me."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What the 2010s, Obama and Trump meant for the civil rights movement

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