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The 2009 Year in Review for Race Relations

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The year has come to a close, and there’s no doubt it will go down in history as a groundbreaking period for race relations. The year was one in which minorities broke extraordinary ground in politics, the most famous African American icon in the world died and Disney unveiled the first black princess in its 72-year history. Still, the year was not without controversy. Debates raged about what constitutes reverse discrimination and racial profiling and whether interracial couplings harm children. What else emerged as racial hot buttons this past year? The 2009 timeline below provides insight into the year in review.

1. The 2009 Presidential Inauguration

AFP/Stringer
Normally the Super Bowl is the main event Americans hustle to get into early in the New Year. Not so in 2009. At the beginning of the year, the inauguration was the place to be. Americans traveled from all over the country to be in Washington D.C. to see the swearing in of the first black president. It was an event Americans wanted to tell their children and grandchildren about someday. For others, such as Ella Mae Johnson, who was 105 on Inauguration Day, the swearing in of Barack Obama was compensation for the virulent discrimination she's endured in life. In January, Johnson told NPR, “I have experienced some of the terrible things that happened to groups, to us and to others.”

2. Supreme Court Rules That White New Haven Firefighters Suffered Discrimination

Six years ago, the city of New Haven, Conn., scrapped a firefighting test that whites passed at a 50 percent greater rate than blacks. Because performance on the test was the basis for promotion, none of the blacks in the department would have advanced had the city accepted the results, leaving New Haven vulnerable to a lawsuit for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In trying to prevent a lawsuit from black firefighters, however, the city found itself being sued by white firefighters who said that New Haven was guilty of reverse discrimination. In June, the Supreme Court sided with the firefighters in a landmark 5-4 ruling. Does this open the door for more reverse discrimination suits in the future?

3. King of Pop Michael Jackson Dies

When pop music icon Michael Jackson died suddenly at age 50 on June 25, he was remembered as a race relations trailblazer. Jackson’s videos appeared on MTV during a time when African-American musicians were virtually nonexistent on the network. His album Thriller remains the best selling album of all time, quite a feat during a time when the music of black artists was segregated from the music of white artists on the radio, the airwaves and in record stores. In death, Jackson, who sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” was mourned by music lovers of all races worldwide.

4. Henry Louis Gates Is Arrested for Breaking Into Own Home

When a Cambridge police officer arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in July for breaking into his own home, it set off a racial firestorm. Gates, who returned home from an overseas trip to find his front door jammed, accused the arresting officer of racial profiling. Debates raged over who was in the wrong—Gates, who was described as belligerent by the Cambridge Police; or the arresting officer, who reportedly arrested Gates despite knowing the professor owned the house in question. Soon, President Obama weighed in, calling the officer’s actions stupid. Shortly thereafter, Obama found himself in his first race relations controversy since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fiasco.

5. Sonia Sotomayor Becomes the First Hispanic on Supreme Court

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States paved the way for other people of color to break ground in politics. In May 2009, President Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor, raised by a single Puerto Rican mother in the Bronx, to the Supreme Court as a replacement for Justice David Souter. On Aug. 6, 2009, Sotomayor became the first Hispanic judge and the third woman to sit on the court. Her appointment to the court also marks the first time judges from two minority groups—African American and Latino—have served on the court together.

6. Harry Connick Jr. Challenges Blackface on Australian Television

When jazz musician Harry Connick Jr. appeared as a judge on an Australian talent show in October, he didn’t hold back his shock upon seeing a group named the Jackson Jive pay tribute to Michael Jackson and his brothers by performing in blackface. Connick said that, as an American, seeing blacks portrayed as buffoons offended him. His criticism resulted in an international race relations controversy. While many Americans applauded Connick for speaking out, Australians said that the skit was meant in good fun and that an American like Connick had no business bringing the U.S.’s racial baggage into their country.

7. Louisiana Judge Refuses Marriage License to Interracial Couple

The Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, allowing interracial couples nationwide to marry. Forty-two years later, a Louisiana judge decided to violate the law and deny a marriage license to a young couple made up of a black man and a white woman. He said the children produced from such unions suffer. It’s safe to say the judge overlooked that one mixed-race child grew up to be president of the United States. The good news is that, after his refusal to marry mixed couples became public, the judge resigned.

8. “Precious” Sparks Debate About African-American Representation

When the film “Precious” opened in theaters in November, it sparked debate about African-American representation in popular culture. The film, based on the novel Push, features an HIV positive teen heroine named Precious Jones who is morbidly obese and has been impregnated twice by her father while enduring abuse from her mother as well. Some argued that the film was a gross distortion of black urban life and that white audiences took pleasure in seeing black dysfunction portrayed on the silver screen. Filmmaker Lee Daniels, who is African American, said that the film depicted a segment of the African American community that is all too often overlooked. Not all blacks are like the characters featured on “The Cosby Show,” he pointed out.

9. “Jersey Shore” Faces Accusations of Ethnic Stereotyping

When MTV’s new reality show “Jersey Shore” debuted Dec. 3, the public objected to how it portrayed Italian Americans. Leading the outcry was Italian-American service group UNICO National. “I suffered through all 120 minutes of that show, and it was worse than I imagined,” a UNICO representative told TMZ.com. “Italian Americans are outraged, and they are helping us reach out to sponsors to ask them to stop advertising with MTV until they agree to pull ‘Jersey Shore.’” While the show has lost advertisers, it’s still on the air. It continues to generate discussions about the perils of ethnic stereotyping.

10. Disney Releases First Feature With Black Princess

Walt Disney Studios
“The Princess and the Frog” debuted nationwide Dec. 11. The film was Disney’s first with a black heroine. It opened to largely positive reviews and topped the box office its opening weekend, grossing approximately $25 million. Controversy surrounded the film before its release, though. Some members of the African American community objected to the fact that Princess Tiana’s love interest, Prince Naveen, wasn’t black; that Tiana remained a frog for much of the film rather than a black woman; and that the film portrayed Voodoo negatively. Other blacks were simply overjoyed that someone who resembled them was joining the ranks of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the like for the first time in Disney’s 72-year history.
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