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Year in Review: Politics of polarization dominated U.S. news

Martin Desmarais | 12/30/2013, 1:38 p.m.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive for an official dinner at the Presidential Palace in Dakar, Senegal, June 27, 2013. (P (Photo courtesy of the White House)

The ensuing national debate focused on use of racial epitaphs such as the N-word and had several scratching their heads as many current and former NFL players seemed to condone such behavior as part of “locker room” culture. For its part the NFL and the Miami Dolphins were quick to condemn the behavior, but with both Incognito and Martin out of the game for the time being, the incident discouraged many in the way the latter was ostracized for standing up.

This summer, many Americans anxiously awaited the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial as he faced second degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The neighborhood watchman’s claim of self-defense from the Feb. 26, 2012 incident in Florida during which he shot and killed the unarmed teenager had many bracing for a controversial verdict. And when a jury acquitted him of all charges, it triggered nationwide protests and had President Barack Obama acknowledging that he could have been Martin 35 years ago.

For a country questioning racial discrimination in the legal system, the ruling in August that New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” program was unconstitutional and the directive to change the program was welcome news. The police practice of searching pedestrians for weapons and other contraband has long drawn criticism and protest that more African American and Latino males are stopped than anyone else.

However, the celebrations were relatively short lived. In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit blocked the order requiring changes to the NYPD stop-and-frisk program and removed presiding Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case. But the legal battle is still ongoing and most are hoping that new Mayor Bill De Blasio will keep his campaign promise to reform the stop-and-frisk program.

Another legal shot to civil rights in this country was the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in June. That provision of the landmark civil rights law had dictated that changes to voting laws have to be cleared by the federal government or in federal court. This part of voting rights has been credited with stopping policies that prevent minorities from voting. Critics of the Supreme Court decision said the move effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act and delivered a serious blow to democracy.

Looking back

While 2013 delivered some challenges to race relations, the year also offered several opportunities to celebrate the efforts that have been made to promote racial harmony.

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The world mourned the departure of former freedom fighter and South African President Nelson Mandela.

On Aug. 28, tens of thousands of people attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. President Obama spoke and was joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The commemoration of the march was celebrated with a week-long slate of events. Other speakers included: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Martin Luther King III.

The year ended with a touching goodbye to one of the greatest champions of human and civil rights the world has ever known when Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 on Dec. 5. The former South African president, Noble Prize winner and conqueror of apartheid was fondly remembered throughout the world and the United States with a number of tributes and memorials for the man who championed reconciliation and embodied South Africa’s long walk to freedom.