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Black America Saw Historic Highs and Tragic Lows in 2022

By Zenitha Prince

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto: https://www.pexels.com/photo/young-african-american-male-with-american-flag-bandana-on-waterfront-4560077/. Photo provided.

In 2022, the U.S. tried to claw its way out of the stranglehold of the COVID-19 pandemic, reckoned with the Jan. 6 assault on its democracy, looked on as a competing superpower waged war on its democratic neighbour, among other top stories. Meanwhile, Black America experienced historic highs, tragic lows and some surprises. Here are the top 10 infuential stories from the African-American community in 2022.

Will Smith Slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars

It was a slap that reverberated around the world. On March 27, 2022, many looked on in stunned wonder as megastar actor Will Smith stormed the Oscars stage and smacked Chris Rock after the comedian made a jibe about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.

“Jada, I love you,” Rock quipped. “‘GI Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it.”

In response, Smith slapped the presenter and shouted, “Keep my wife’s name out your motherf***ing mouth!”

Though the “King Richard” actor went on to win the award for best actor, the career highlight was overshadowed by the altercation. The incident dominated air waves and social media, sparking debate about violence against comedians and insensitivity—Pinkett Smith had shaved her head because she suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease affecting nearly 6.8 million people in the U.S (disproportionately Black women) that causes them to lose the hair on their head and sometimes their body.

Though Smith later apologized, the up-to-then Hollywood darling was banned from the Academy Awards for 10 years and has been reclusive ever since.

Serena Williams announces retirement from professional tennis

The GOAT of tennis in August announced she was hanging up her racquet after a 27-year career in which she – and her sister Venus Williams – broke barriers and records, entertained the masses and paved the way for other Black athletes in the previously White-washed sport.

“I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me,” Williams, then-41, announced in a Vogue article.

Williams played her final match on Sept. 2 before a packed, celebrity-littered crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium and about 7 million viewers at home—it was ESPN’s most watched tennis broadcast ever. The 23-time Grand Slam single titles winner was seeking her 24th title, but lost to Australian player Ajla Tomljanovic.

Williams admitted her retirement was a difficult decision, one that made her cry. But, she said she looked forward to growing her business ventures and expanding her family.

“I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”

Gun Violence

Gun violence continued unabated in 2022, recording, for example, the second-highest number of mass shootings in a year.

Though there is no official definition, the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group, defines a mass shooting as four or more persons shot in a single incident — not including the shooter. At year’s end, the group had tallied 641 mass shootings in 2022.

Of the 600-plus incidents, Black readers would most remember the May 14 shooting in which a White gunman targeted and killed 10 Black shoppers and workers at Tops Friendly Market, a supermarket in a predominately Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. He live-streamed the event.

“This was pure evil,” Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said in a news conference at the time. “It was a straight-up racially motivated hate crime from somebody outside of our community.”
The teenage gunman, Payton Gendron, had posted a racist manifesto online, replete with White supremacist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views. In November, the 19-year-old pleaded guilty to 27 charges including murder, murder as a hate crime, and hate-motivated domestic terrorism, which carries an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Beyond the mass shooting, the Black community continued to be ravaged by a crisis of gun-related deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a report released a few days before the Buffalo massacre. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the firearm death rate in the U.S. soared to its highest rate since 1994, with a disproportionate increase among Blacks (19% to 26.6%). Black males, especially, died from gun violence at catastrophic rates: firearm homicides spiked among Black males ages 10-24 from 54.9% to 77.3% and from 66.5% to 90.6% among those ages 25-44 years. African-American women also outstripped their counterparts: among those ages 10-24 there was a 6.4% to 9.1% rise in gun-related homicides, and among women 25-44 years, a 6.9% to 10.2% increase.

Community groups and anti-gun violence advocates pointed to several factors for the persistent disparities, including systemic racism, disinvestment in anti-violence programs and Black communities at large, easy access to guns, joblessness, lack of access to mental health care, unequal opportunities for homeownership and a plethora of socioeconomic ills.
Extrajudicial and Police Killings of Blacks

January 2022 offered a hint of promise to those who have looked on despairingly while police officers and others killed Blacks with seeming indemnity: The three White men who hunted and shot 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were sentenced to life in prison, with only one having the option of parole.

“Instead of closure, maybe it would be best to see today’s proceeding as an exercise in accountability,” Judge Timothy Walmsley said at the sentencing. “Today demonstrates that everybody is accountable to the rule of law. Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavor.”

The next month, the three men were again found guilty on all counts in their federal hate crimes trial.

Despite the justice attained in Arbery’s case, and the international calls for criminal justice reform sparked by mass protests after the 2020 killing of George Floyd, extrajudicial and police brutality against Blacks continued to abound.

Police killed 1,183 people in 2022—the highest number in a decade, according to the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence’s database. And Black people were 25% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population. African Americans were three times as likely to be killed as Whites and were more likely to be unarmed, the nonprofit found.

Britney Griner Imprisoned in Russia

Against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, WNBA star Britney Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February on charges of drug smuggling. The 6-foot-9 center, who, for years, had played in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team, testified that she had mistakenly packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage. But, she was sentenced to nine years imprisonment in August and sent to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic after losing her appeal in November.

By early December, however, in a move decried by Republicans, the White House signed off on a prisoner exchange that swapped the Phoenix Mercury star for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along,” President Biden said in the press conference announcing her return, alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle.

Ketanji Brown Jackson Sworn in as First Black woman on Supreme Court

It took 233 years, but finally, in June 2022, a Black woman, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was sworn in as the 116th Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Biden said he had thought about the importance of nominating a Black woman to the nation’s highest court for a long time.

“We’re going to look back and see this as a moment of real change in American history,” Biden said in remarks at the time of her confirmation.

Jackson, 51, a Washington, D.C. native, referenced the unprecedented nature of her confirmation to the bench in a visually emotional speech, adding, “But we’ve made it, we’ve made it. All of us.”

COVID-19 Turns Back Clock on Student Achievement

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on families—inciting fear, taking away jobs, bringing sickness and death to many homes. And it also severely disrupted the educational achievement of the nation’s children, especially the poor and those of color. Most schools were shut down and children asked to engage in online learning—which was not readily accessible or effective for all children.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math exams, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” found that over the course of the pandemic, fourth- and eighth-graders fell behind in reading and had the largest ever decline in math. And the achievement gap between White and Black students grew even wider.

For fourth-graders, the average math score of 236 was 5 points lower than in 2019, and the reading score of 217 dropped by 3 points. Among eight-graders, average math scores dropped by 8 points below the 2019 mark of 274 and reading scores by 3 points from 263 in 2019.

In mathematics, Black students saw a 13-point score decrease compared to a 5-point decrease among White students, resulting in a widening of the White−Black score gap from 25 points in 2020 to 33 points in 2022.

In reading, both Black and White students saw a 6-point score decrease, maintaining the 23-point score gap.

Other research coming out of Harvard University and captured in its “Education Recovery Scorecard” compared district-level learning, and offered another picture of lagging achievement during the pandemic. The average U.S. public school student in grades 3-8 lost the equivalent of a half year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading, the research showed. And, within low-income schools – where Blacks children are usually segregated – the losses were worse.

In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, where nearly 80% of students are poor, students lost the equivalent of 70% of a school year in reading and more than a year in math, according to the analysis. The district’s Black students lost a year-and-one-third in math and two-thirds of a year in reading.

Roe v. Wade struck down by Supreme Court

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, landmark legislation that for 50 years had stood as a bulwark of legal protection for women seeking abortions.

Within minutes of the decision, states began enacting abortion bans.

Black and civil rights leaders said the ruling tread upon women’s inherent rights, and Vice President Kamala Harris even compared the Roe v. Wade reversal to slavery. “We know our government has a history of claiming ownership over human bodies,” she told an NAACP audience.

NAACP General Counsel Janette McCarthy Wallace, and others said the ruling would be particularly damaging to Black women.

“There is no denying the fact that this is a direct attack on all women, and Black women stand to be disproportionately impacted by the court’s egregious assault on basic human rights,” Wallace said in a statement at the time.

Black women in the United States are nearly four times more likely to have abortions than White women and accounted for the highest rate of abortions (38.4%) among all women, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rep. Bennie Thompson(D-Miss.) leads Capitol attack hearings

On Jan. 6, 2021, millions looked on in shock and dismay—others in relish—as armed Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, damaging property, attacking Capitol Hill police and hunting for lawmakers, in a bid to overturn Trump’s defeat at the polls in November.

On June 9, 2022, millions also looked on in primetime newscasts as the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol held its first public hearing on the unprecedented event. In the spotlight was Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Black Caucus member who has represented Mississippi for 30 years in Washington and the person chosen to chair the committee.

“I’m from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try to justify the actions of the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021,” Thompson said in his opening statements.

In the 10 months prior to the hearings, the committee had worked exhaustively – interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and collating more than 130,000 documents.

Then, together with co-chair Rep. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming – one of only two Republicans in the group – Thompson led a series of nine hearings that not only provided riveting, must-see TV, but also increased the possibility that former President Trump would be prosecuted for his alleged role in the premeditated attempted coup.

At its conclusion, the committee unanimously voted to refer four criminal charges against the former president to the Department of Justice: Obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement and insurrection.

“None of the events of January 6th would have happened without him,” the committee wrote in its final 845-page report.

Ongoing health disparities

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the entrenched disparities that make for higher negative health outcomes among minorities. The 2022 National Health Care Quality and Disparities Report revealed, for example, that while life expectancy for the overall U.S. population decreased by 1.5 years over the past two years, it decreased by 2.9 years for Blacks.

Like the rest of the country, the leading causes of death among Africans Americans were, in order, heart disease, cancer and COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the American Heart Association, nearly two-thirds of African Americans adults had some form of cardiovascular disease and led other racial and ethnic groups in mortality from the disease.

Black patients also are more likely to die from most cancers and to live the shortest amount of time after a cancer diagnosis than any other racial/ethnic group, according to the American Cancer Society. Though there was some improvement, such as the declining prostate cancer mortality among Black men, the gaps between Whites and Blacks for many common cancers remained wide. Most notably, Black women are 41% more likely to die from breast cancer than White women, despite being less likely to be diagnosed with it.

African-Americans were also the faces of the COVID-19. According to the CDC, compared to White Americans, Blacks are 2.6 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 4.7 times more likely to be hospitalized for the disease, and 2.1 times more likely to die from it.

Blacks also trailed Whites in other areas, suffering from higher rates of stroke, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources.

Increasingly, experts are identifying structural racism—unequal access to quality education, good-paying jobs, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, quality food, health services, etc.—and the resulting lower socioeconomic status as a root cause of health inequity.

“The AMA (American Medical Association) recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities,” AMA Board Member Willarda V. Edwards, MD, MBA, said in a statement. “Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer.”