Americans were living through history in 2020 as the country was forced to reconcile the past and the present. The Covid-19 pandemic, which many had considered a “great equalizer,” paralyzed the world and Black, Latino and Native American communities were among the hardest hit. Racist attacks against Asians in the US were also on the rise. Jogging, bird-watching or calling 911 while Black felt dangerous and George Floyd‘s killing by a police officer shook Americans out of whatever made them numb to racism and police brutality.
No matter where you turned, you couldn’t ignore reality. America was the epicenter of a racial reckoning.
Within days, people joined more than 10,000 demonstrations nationwide and a movement to demand reform in police departments across the country quickly followed. Confederate monuments were toppled. TV and sports arenas were not exempt from the call for social justice, and athletes were among the leading voices in the fight for racial equality.
By November, people turned from protesting in the streets to protesting at the polls and Black, Latino and Native Americans voters helped flipped some states blue.
Look back at the moments in politics, policing and culture that defined the extraordinary year in which America was forced to confront racism – and in some cases moved the needle toward change.
As the number of coronavirus cases started to grow in the United States, rampant ignorance and misinformation about the pandemic prompted racist and xenophobic attacks against Americans or anyone in the US who looked East Asian. President Donald Trump, who described Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “Chinese virus,” later asked Americans to “protect our Asian American community.”
Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased by an armed former police officer and his son, both White, and killed in the confrontation near Brunswick. More than two months would pass before the two men were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and murder.
Taylor, a Black medical worker, was in her apartment when officers barged in while executing a search warrant in a narcotics investigation, leading to a barrage of police gunfire. Her death would prompt months of protests in Louisville, Kentucky, and in cities across the US.
The pandemic magnified the systemic inequalities that non-White Americans, especially Black, Hispanic and Native American people, face in the US. Covid-19 hospitalizations and death rates are higher among those groups.
The city’s Commission on Human Rights created the team after receiving hundreds of harassment and discrimination reports related to Covid-19. More than 40% involved anti-Asian incidents, the agency said.
Amy Cooper called police on Memorial Day after Christian Cooper (no relation) asked her to follow the park’s rules and leash her dog. She falsely accused him of threatening her and later faced a misdemeanor charge. Prosecutors said she engaged in “racist criminal conduct.”
Shortly after Floyd’s death, protests began in Minneapolis and spread across the US and around the world. At least 40 cities imposed curfews and National Guard members were activated in dozens of states and Washington, DC, after some protests turned violent.
The giant yellow letters were painted on the road to the White House in an effort spearheaded by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser. Soon, the same words filled multiple city blocks in cities such as Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles to represent the community and local officials’ commitment to social justice.
The Richmond statue was among the first Confederate statues removed over several weeks following George Floyd’s death. Protesters and city leaders in states including Alabama, Florida and South Carolina led similar efforts to remove what some consider racist symbols of America’s dark legacy of slavery.
Brooks, 27, was killed outside a Wendy’s restaurant after failing a sobriety test, fighting with two officers, taking a Taser from one and running away. It ignited protests in Atlanta that led to the burning of the restaurant and the resignation of the city’s police chief. Officer Garrett Rolfe was fired and charged with murder in Brooks’ death.
The Black Trans Lives Matter rally in New York, one of many nationwide, came after two black trans women were killed in June. As of November 20, at least 37 trans and gender nonconforming people were killed in 2020 in what the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) called “an epidemic of violence.” Of the 37 victims, the majority were Black, Latinx or both, according to HRC.
The oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the US was recognized for the first time by major companies, universities and local governments. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 on which Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, told slaves of their emancipation. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia recognize it, but it still isn’t a federal holiday.
Wallace, the only full-time African American driver in NASCAR’s top circuit, led an effort to ban Confederate flags from racetracks just weeks earlier. The FBI said the noose had been at the Talladega Superspeedway garage since last year and Wallace, therefore, was not a victim of a hate crime. After the noose was found, Wallace’s fellow drivers and pit crew members walked alongside his car before a Cup Series race to show their support for him.
Mark and Patricia McCloskey came out of a home brandishing firearms as protesters, who were protesting Mayor Lyda Krewson’s decision to publish the names and addresses of people in favor of police reform, walked outside their home. Months later, the couple spoke on video at the Republican National Convention accusing Democrats of wanting to “abolish” the suburbs. They pleaded not guilty to weapons and tampering charges linked to the incident.
Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the last US state flag to feature the Confederate battle emblem. The flag, adopted in 1894, has red, white and blue stripes with the Confederate battle emblem in one corner. Voters approved a new flag in November that features a magnolia, the state flower.
The team became the first team to announce a name change. The Redskins name had long been denounced by Native American groups as an ethnic slur. The change came amid mounting pressure from corporate sponsors and after some brands, including Nike and Amazon, removed the team’s merchandise from their online stores.
The two towering figures of the American civil rights movement died as the nation grappled with protests and demands for racial equality. C.T. Vivian worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and was part of the Freedom Riders – civil rights activists who rode through Southern states to make sure bus terminals and other public facilities were not segregated. He died at age 95 of natural causes. Rep. John Lewis, who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, went on to become a longtime US congressman. He died at age 80 after a six-month battle with cancer.
When the league began its season, players dedicated it to Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, which raises awareness for Black female victims of police violence. A Social Justice Council of players and activists was created to push forward conversations about social issues.
The league returned after a 20-week hiatus amid the pandemic and all players at the inaugural game in Orlando wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he would not enforce the league’s long-standing rule that requires players to stand during the anthem. Outside of basketball, many MLB players also took a knee.
Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back at point-blank range seven times by Kenosha Police Department officer Rusten Sheskey, a White man. The shooting immediately sparked local protests and intensified demonstrations against police brutality in the US. Blake survived but is paralyzed from the waist down.
From basketball courts in Florida to baseball diamonds in California to soccer fields in places such as Miami, athletes refused to play their regularly scheduled games. Instead of playing, Washington Mystics players wore white T-shirts with seven holes on the back at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.
Fifty-seven years to the day since Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, relatives of African Americans killed or injured in recent police encounters took to the same spot on the National Mall in an emotionally call for social and political change. Thousands watched numerous speakers, including King’s son Martin Luther King III, make emphatic calls for police reform, justice reform and voter action.
A grand jury in Kentucky indicted former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison on first-degree wanton endangerment charges for his actions on the night Breonna Taylor was killed by police. Two other officers at the scene were not indicted, and no one was charged directly with her death. Outrage and heartbreak boiled over into demonstrations in cities across the US.
The Mars-owned rice products brand formerly known as Uncle Ben’s announced it was changing its name to Ben’s Original. Mars was among several food companies that replaced their logos and packaging that have long been criticized for perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. Other products undergoing changes are Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup.
Price, a 31-year-old Black man, was intervening in a domestic dispute at a gas station in Wolfe City, Texas, a city of about 1,400 roughly 70 miles northeast of Dallas. A police officer who responded to the incident attempted to detain Price, used his Taser and then fired his weapon, hitting him. The officer, Shaun Lucas, was charged with murder in the shooting.
A mass grave was found in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, cemetery where archeologists have been searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. City officials launched an effort to find the victims’ remains in 2018. An excavation in another area of the cemetery in July yielded no results.
The California senator is the first female, first Black and first South Asian elected to that office in the country’s nearly 250-year history. Harris was only the second Black female US senator after she was elected to Congress in 2016.
Cori Bush, a progressive community leader and veteran Black Lives Matter activist, won Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. The nurse and pastor became an organizer after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and more recently, she got into politics. During the new member orientation at the Capitol, Bush said she was stunned and “hurt” that some Republicans addressed her as “Breonna” because she was wearing a mask with Breonna Taylor’s name on it.
Torres, a New York City Council member, won his US House race to represent the South Bronx, one of the poorest and most Democratic districts in the country. “I hope I can represent the possibility that a poor kid, a kid of color, a LGBTQ kid from a place like the Bronx, can overcome the odds and become a member of the United States Congress,” he told CNN.
Philadelphia issued its first official apology in November, months after the 35th anniversary of the bombing that killed 11 people and destroyed dozens of homes on May 13, 1985, when police deployed a bomb after city officials decided to evict members of a Black liberation group called MOVE. The apology came just weeks after officials in Greensboro, North Carolina, formally apologized for the deaths of five people during an attack by Ku Klux Klan members and the American Nazi Party, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey offered a formal apology to a survivor of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
The civil rights attorney and Alabama’s first Black special prosecutor was arrested in 1958 after refusing to leave the “Whites-only” section of a restaurant at a bus station in Richmond, Virginia. He was convicted of trespassing and challenged his sentence, which sparked the historic US Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia and ignited the Freedom Rides movement in 1961.
The Trump administration tried in 2017 to end the Obama-era program that shielded from deportation undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, but the US Supreme Court blocked its attempt in June. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf had signed rules limiting applications and renewals for the program over the summer.
President-elect Joe Biden nominated several people to be in his Cabinet, including retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of defense; Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a Black woman, for secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, for UN ambassador; Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American man who would be the first Latino to serve as secretary of Homeland Security; Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first Native American who would serve as secretary of interior; Neera Tanden, the first woman of color and first South Asian person who would lead the Office of Management and Budget; and Cecilia Rouse, who would be the first woman of color to serve as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Biden said he would name “the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced.”
Editors: Delano Massey, Dalila-Johari Paul and Melissa Gray
Digital design and development: Ivory Sherman, Gabrielle Smith and Priya Krishnakumar
Editorial Research: Skylar Mitchell
Photo Editor: Rebecca Wright