This year had big shoes to fill after 2020’s protests sparked by the high-profile killings of Black people opened the floodgates on how racism manifests in America.
The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are now convicted murderers. On Thursday, a former police officer was found guilty of first- and second-degree manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright earlier this year. But in the 18 months since Floyd’s last words were captured on video, what progress has been made? Are protections for people of color getting stronger? Are we any better at talking to each other about race?
Naturally, as CNN Audio producers, we turned to podcasts for some answers.
We scoured various shows for big and small analyses as well as fun and serious conversations about race, culture and politics. From critical race theory and debates over defunding police, to the way Dave Chappelle’s standup once again put him at odds with many in the Black transgender community, 2021 was the year Americans were forced to go deeper and think more critically.
There were too many great podcasts to label which ones were the best – but here are 10 that helped move crucial conversations forward.
1. Resistance (Gimlet/Spotify) ‘F Your Water Fountain’ Hall of Fame Series
In its second year, “Resistance” is back and stronger than ever with some of the best storytelling about, well, resistance. The show’s team really stepped their game up, featuring stories about stolen artifacts, religion as an act of defiance, the fallout from the 2020 protests, among others. The three-part “F Your Water Fountain” Hall of Fame series stands out because it examines activism and tells us it’s alright to have fun while doing it, encouraging the listener to follow in the spirit of resistance. This series, which includes the episodes: “F Your Water Fountain,” “F Your Bayonet,” and “F Your Everything,” is named after a photo taken in the 1950s of Cecil J. Williams, a civil rights pioneer who was photographed in his late teens drinking water from a “Whites only” water fountain in South Carolina, looking fly as hell. All the people featured in these episodes were activists during the 1950s and ’60s, but their tactics and motivations laid a framework for modern-day protesters and have had a direct impact on activism to this day. The series also highlights that while resistance is important and serious, it can also be joyous, fun, and you can look pretty cool while doing it.
2. Anything for Selena (WBUR Boston NPR/Futuro Studios) ‘Big Butt Politics’
This nine-part series explores the legacy of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. The “Queen of Tejano music” was murdered 26 years ago at the beginning of her promising career. In the episode, “Big Butt Politics,” host Maria Garcia takes a look at the way Selena influenced a popular aesthetic and source of controversy today – the size of a woman’s derriere. After years of being glamorized in Black American and hip-hop culture, more Americans see the beauty in a big booty. The number of Brazilian butt lift procedures are rising, despite the fact that they’re not always performed safely or benefit everyone in the same way. Garcia argues that the acceptance of this aesthetic has not only contributed to the fame of White and light-skinned celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez, but highlights anti-Black racism in Latino communities.
3. Feeling Asian (Youngmi Mayer and Brian Park) ‘Feeling Asian’
Perhaps now more than ever, having a community matters. It can be a source of healing, of celebration and political context. After months of watching members of Asian American communities endure violence during the pandemic, we watched many of them rally and grow even more vocal about anti-Asian hate after the Atlanta spa shootings in March. This is why the episode, “Feeling Asian” stayed on our radar. It features an intimate conversation between hosts and comedians Youngmi Mayer and Brian Park about their raw feelings and reactions to the shootings, how they’ve been covered by American media, and their disappointment about how some of their White counterparts have responded. It’s part of an eponymous weekly podcast chat show that covers a wide range of topics from sex and dating to the importance of finding an Asian therapist.
4. This Land (Crooked Media, in association with Critical Frequency) ‘Solomon’s Sword’
One of the most talked about podcasts of 2021 focuses on the many ways Native American history impacts the present. The pool of podcasts, especially narrative ones, covering indigenous communities and cultures is small. In its second season, “This Land” examines the Indian Child Welfare Act, one of the most challenged laws of the past decade. Host Rebecca Nagle reports on a case that she’s been following for years about a Native American toddler, the White couple trying to adopt him, and a fight for the future of Native American rights. This podcast will no doubt be on many “best of” lists this year because of Nagle’s and the team at This Land’s storytelling ability. To take a story as complicated as this one, one that is steeped in American Indian law, sovereignty issues, and the foster care system, and to make it accessible to a larger audience is what makes this podcast one of the best pieces of journalism in the past year.
5. Mississippi Goddamn: The Ballad of Billey Joe (Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting) ‘Chapter 5: Star Crossed’
The US Supreme Court banned anti-miscegenation laws nearly 55 years ago. But social acceptance of the ban didn’t happen overnight and still doesn’t sit right with some Americans to this day. Reveal’s investigative podcast, “Mississippi Goddamn” homes in on this and explores a conversation that is still complex in 2021: our comfort with Black men dating, marrying and having sex with White women. The seven-part series details the life and untimely death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a Black teenager who was romantically involved with a young White woman in 2008. He lived and died in Mississippi, which only repealed its anti-miscegenation state laws in 1987. In the episode, “Chapter 5: Star Crossed,” host Al Letson walks us through Billey’s relationship with his girlfriend – their love, their problems, and how some members of the community felt about it. The storytelling and reporting are compelling. The questions it asks, especially around who and what is considered racist, is haunting.
6. Through the Cracks (WAMU/PRX) ‘Relisha Goes Missing’
“Missing White Woman Syndrome” – a phrase credited to the late journalist Gwen Ifill – became part of the national conversation again this year after Gabby Petito tragically did not return home from a cross -country trip with her fiancé. Her remains were later found. The term describes the disproportionate media coverage missing White women receive in comparison to missing women of color. This can be frustrating, especially for Black, Asian, and indigenous communities, who make up nearly 40% of all reported missing cases. In 2020, 30% of all reported missing persons were Black people. This is is why we highlighted the “Through the Cracks” podcast, which masterfully narrates the 2014 disappearance of Relisha Rudd from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. Relisha was in second grade at the time. In the episode, “Relisha Goes Missing,” host Jonquilyn Hill details the days leading up to and after the 8-year-old went missing and how her community responded.
7. LOUD (Spotify and Futuro Studios) ‘The Zone’
Some of the most fun conversations about race this year centered around its connection to music. Spotify and Futuro made these connections particularly well in “Loud,” their new show documenting the history of Reggaeton. The show is hosted by the legendary Ivy Queen, la Reina (the queen) de reggaeton herself. This podcast felt important to highlight in 2021 as reggaeton gets even more popular internationally. It explains and gives flowers to the Afro-Latino roots of this genre, one that is currently dominated by White-presenting Latinos like Bad Bunny and J Balvin. In the episode, “The Zone,” Ivy traces the roots of this movement to its beginnings in Panama, by way of Jamaica. As the mix of reggae and Spanish dancehall music took hold, a new wave emerged.