At first, it felt easy enough to laugh at them.
There was Alison Ettel (“Permit Patty”) crouching on a San Francisco sidewalk after confronting a black eight-year-old girl for selling water. There was Jennifer Schulte, who became an instant meme as “BBQ Becky,” breaking down in a fit of white tears after calling the cops on a black family hosting a cookout in Oakland. Schulte’s meme was so mainstream that she was widely derided on The View. There was Theresa Klein (“Cornerstore Caroline”), a Brooklyn resident who accused a young black boy of groping her at a local deli, who earned the jeers of an entire block as she witnessed, live on camera, her story being refuted by the store’s surveillance footage.
But there were also dozens of names we didn’t know: the nameless neighbors calling the police on black people campaigning on residential streets, for instance, or the anonymous “concerned” calls from university employees about black students who looked like they didn’t belong. Without a person to mock, these stories centered on the anger, confusion, humiliation and perhaps worst of all, the resignation the subjects of these stories felt.
Early on, staff writers on The Root discussed among themselves the wisdom of using the at-times cutesy nicknames. Sometimes, staffers coined the aliases; other times, the nicknames had already been cemented on social media. For many readers of these stories, the names became a shorthand for people to differentiate one event from another (“White Person Calls the Cops on Black Person for Ordinary Thing” was a headline easily exhausted in 2018). There was also a pointed utility to the humor—it was a way of inserting lightness into what was macabre and self-evident: For black people, the mere act of existing in public, mostly white spaces, was an act of trespass.
It’s natural to try and make coherent the onslaught of news that 2018 brought, horrific and absurd in both its nature and its tendency to repeat itself. Many have pointed to an ever-blooming rage that has seized growing swaths of the country. In a similar vein, others have pointed to an increasingly polarized country. What strikes me about the year in news is the continued incongruity between this country’s mythology—the values we espouse, the notion of who we are or ought to be—and its reality.
I will speak for myself here: The sheer pace of the year—the number of stories, the seeming urgency of all of them, the mounting feeling of dread and despair that the earth we were trying to save had already been salted—wore me down.
This was the year Amber Guyger, after getting off her shift as a Dallas police officer, walked into Botham Shem Jean’s apartment and shot him dead. This was also the year a Chicago cop, Jason Van Dyke, was convicted of murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Weeks earlier, a jury found Roy Oliver guilty of murdering 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
With the year-end passage of First Step, it’s tempting to say the arc of these narratives has bent toward justice. But this was also the year that 16 people died behind bars in just one month in Mississippi. That trans women of color continued to be murdered at alarming rates. In 2018, we learned that black children were increasingly committing suicide, while the premature and disproportionate deaths of black mothers finally made headlines, thanks in no small part to one of the greatest athletes of her generation, Serena Williams, suffering a near-fatal scare shortly after giving birth to her first child. Nationwide, the record showed Americans are dying even younger—life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row, with drug overdoses and suicides fueling the bleak trend.
I blogged and reported on a number of these stories. Even as I was proud of individual articles I wrote—stories about the power of pop culture to shift narratives and create utopian spaces, or about what it really means to seek justice after a cop kills your loved one—I constantly felt a sense of failure.
Failure because there would inevitably be a death—which is to say, a life—that would not be documented or memorialized. Failure because the deluge of news means something important slips through your fingers every day. Failure because the stakes feel impossibly high. Two migrant children died in U.S. custody this year, as did a trans woman, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, who was beaten and died of complications from dehydration and a lack of medical treatment (Rodriguez was HIV positive).
How do you find the necessary distance to give context to a wildfire as it rages all around you? I think of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings and the very real despair I felt as I and others were called to respond in real time to his nomination, the sexual assault allegations and his eventual swearing-in. In covering that story, it was important to say what a thing was. It also felt futile. I think of U.S. agents forcibly ripping migrant children from their families—many of whom came to the U.S. to seek asylum. Even as the family separations ended, the overcrowding at child detention centers continued to the end of the year.
While the fall brought some people reason to hope—a deluge of candidates of color and women candidates took power on messages of reform and resistance in local and national races, and thousands of disenfranchised ex-felons won back the right to vote—what actually pulled me back, time and again, through the numbness and the rage was this matter of contributing to and, at times, correcting the record.
As I step back and assess the year, particularly at this site, I think of how the work of minority publications and journalists in this country has always been a matter of disputing mainstream narratives, of contradicting or complicating any number of mythologies. How we reported unflinchingly on the widespread voter suppression and systemic failures that had profound effects on the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial races in the shadow of an electoral system that remains inefficient, racist and corrupt. Challenging the notion that white, working-class voters acted out of economic grievances rather than something much more primal: an insistence on white identity politics. Assigning to events and people their proper names: Calling what is happening at the U.S./Mexico border both a moral and a humanitarian crisis. Reminding the world that the sitting U.S. president isn’t some random administrator of “racially charged” policies: He is himself, as the record has shown for decades, a racist.
To write at a black publication—to write without centering a white audience—means to write away from so-called neutral and objective language that has always foregrounded white sensibilities. In the chaos of the news cycle, it felt both grounding and necessary to take a hammer to terms like “PC culture” and “racially charged”—words that obfuscate rather than reveal anything meaningful. To continue leaning away from the increasingly ridiculous notion that any of us, as news writers, as news consumers, are at all impartial to the stories that touch us. If anything has felt like a refuge, it has been that—the freedom, in the midst of the storm, to call a thing what it is.
You can’t talk about 2018—or 2019, for that matter—without talking about America’s increased polarization: a rift as evident in pop culture as in politics, in education as in economics. But here, America’s record has been consistent: Though our histories have intersected, the degree to which Americans have been able to share American values has varied greatly on our access to those things.
What has been afforded to marginalized groups in this country is not freedom but a flimsy facsimile. An ability to participate in the narrative but not control it. A seat at the table, but the one closest to the door.
It is no wonder then, that so many Americans want their outrage recorded. Others remain in denial, insisting that what is self-evident isn’t the truth. That what has been documented and verified—the continued marginalization and erasure of people of color, of migrants, of LGBTQ people, of the poor—can’t be trusted, because to trust it would mean to believe something as terrible as it is true: We have collectively failed, and any real progress begins only at the moment we finally meet this failure.
This isn’t a revelation. But 2018 has thrown it so sharply into relief it’s impossible to ignore.
I think of Patricia Okoumou, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and naturalized American citizen, sitting at the feet of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July to protest the detention of migrant children. A woman who now faces up to 18 months in federal prison after a judge found her guilty on three misdemeanor charges, including trespassing. A woman who, in the face of these charges, had to remind the world that she is on the right side of history. A result so stark, so telling, and so painfully expected you could almost laugh.