June 22, 2024

Folding Chairs, Brutal Cops, Affirmative Action: The 2023 News Stories That Hit Different for Black America – BET

December 7, 2023
10:51 AM

Several news events captured our attention in 2023 and drove conversations in our community. On one hand, the Supreme Court defended the rights of Black voters but then rolled back decades of efforts to diversify college campuses. 
In 2023, the Tennessee House of Representatives captured national attention in a political showdown between young Black lawmakers and White conservatives who tried to silence their protest. 

Then there was the meme-generating melee in Montgomery in which Black people started swinging fists and chairs in what seemed to many a moment of unity.

But there was also a young woman who decided to fake her kidnapping, worrying everyone about what happened to her, only to find out it was all a hoax.

These are just a few things that kept us engaged and talking, and if we’re being honest, we’re still having the conversations. It was a busy year, full of really interesting news, so here’s a list of 10 items that made 2023 memorable:
A racially charged video of an Aug. 5 rumble at Riverfront Park in Montgomery, Ala., went viral. It showed Black riverboat co-captain Dameion Pickett attacked by a group of White people on the dock, which prompted other Black people to join the melee — including a teenager who swam across the water — to help Pickett, and another man who made folding chairs a popular meme.
According to Montgomery police, the brawl began when the white boaters refused to move their pontoon boat so the city-owned Harriott II riverboat could dock in its designated space. Pickett told ABC’s Good Morning America that the White men assaulted him after he moved their boat a few feet to make space for the Harriott II.
Montgomery Police Department Chief Darryl Albert identified Pickett as a victim. But in the aftermath, AL.com reports that a municipal judge scheduled Pickett for trial on Jan. 30 after he pleaded not guilty in November to misdemeanor third-degree assault.
The charge stems from a complaint signed by Zachery Shipman, one of the White men who assaulted Pickett.
Shipman and Allen Todd, who is also White, were charged with third-degree assault. The court scheduled a trial for both white men on Dec. 8. The court previously gave a third White man, Richard Roberts, a four-month suspended sentence, a 32-day jail sentence to be served on weekends and community service for his third-degree assault charge.
Two other people were charged. Reggie Ray, a Black man who struck at least two people with a folding chair, was charged with disorderly conduct and awaits trial. Several internet and social media memes (and even t-shirts) were inspired by his actions. Mary Todd, who is White, pleaded guilty to harassment and was given a 15-day suspended sentence.

RELATED: Montgomery Mayor Says ‘Justice Will Be Served’ After Raucous Riverboat Brawl
Photo by Lucy Garrett
The year began with a shocking story about Memphis, Tenn., police officers fatally beating a Black motorist. A video released weeks later showed the viciousness of the assault. What people saw contradicted the claims of the officers and others involved in what prosecutors alleged was an attempt to cover up a crime.
Footage of the Jan. 7, 2023 traffic stop shows several officers pulling Tyre Nichols, 29, from his vehicle for alleged reckless driving, punching and kicking him for no apparent reason. Nichols died three days later in a hospital. 
On Jan. 26, state prosecutors charged five Black officersTadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith – with second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of official oppression and one count of aggravated assault. Federal prosecutors later charged them with multiple offenses, including the use of excessive force and lying to cover up their actions.
Many in the Black community were not surprised that Nichols died at the hands of Black policemen. They said it was further proof of systemic racism in law enforcement. 
“What this illustrates is that we do have a deep problem that is beyond Black and White, and it’s about blue. It’s about the nature and the infrastructures of policing in this country that every single day send a message,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, told USA Today.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
In June, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority banned race-conscious college admissions programs. The landmark ruling rolled back decades of affirmative action in education, disrupting efforts to bring racial and ethnic diversity to campuses nationwide. 
The ruling involved a Harvard University group calling itself Students for Fair Admission, which accused the school of holding Asian-American students to a higher educational standard than it does African American or Hispanic students.
According to the justices, Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s policies violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. 
“Race-blind admissions processes will further exacerbate existing inequalities and undermine the recognition of the unique challenges that Black, Hispanic, and Native American students encounter throughout the admissions process,” the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, warned.
President Joe Biden also condemned the high court’s ruling. He said many people wrongly believe that affirmative action is a means to admit unqualified students to colleges and universities. 
“This is not how college admissions work,” the president stated. He explained that all students must first meet the college’s admissions standards before the school can consider other factors, including race.
RELATED: Supreme Court Ends Affirmative Action in Education In Landmark Ruling
(Photo: GoFundMe)
We celebrated the miracle of Ralph Yarl surviving a near-death encounter with an elderly Kansas City, Mo., homeowner. But we were also enraged by what happened.
On April 13, Yarl, then 16, was sent to pick up his twin siblings from their friend’s house that evening but got lost driving there. The Black teenager mistakenly rang the doorbell of 84-year-old Andrew Lester, a retired aircraft mechanic.
According to prosecuting attorney Zachary Thompson, Lester came to the door and used a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson 1888 revolver to shoot the teenager – first in the head and then in the arm when Yarl fell to the ground.
Lester has pleaded not guilty to first-degree assault. His attorney argued Lester was scared and defended himself, fearing that the Black high school honor student might harm him. 
This case illustrated what researchers call the “adultification bias” of Black children and youth. It refers to White people perceiving Black children as older and less innocent than White children, and Black males as larger and more threatening than White males of the same size.
The Washington Post noted that Lester told the police Yarl was a “Black male approximately 6 feet tall” and he was “scared to death due to the male’s size.” Actually, Yarl is only 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. 
Similar adultification bias was involved in the Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 and in how George Zimmerman perceived 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in their deadly 2012 encounter. 

Seth Herald/Getty Images
Two Black lawmakers in the Tennessee House of Representatives skyrocketed to national prominence in April after the GOP-controlled chamber tried to stifle their protest.
In an extraordinary move, the Republican supermajority voted to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson for their “power to the people” style protest on the House floor in which they called for gun control legislation in the wake of a Nashville school mass shooting. A third Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is White, survived her expulsion vote.
But the expulsions backfired on Republicans. The trio, dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and made dozens of national TV appearances. Local officials reinstated both lawmakers, and they later won reelection to the state House.
New York magazine called Jones and Pearson “the new face of Black power politics.”
“In short order, the Justins, as they are now affectionately known, have become the face of a resurgent oppositional politics born out of the social-justice protests of the past few years. They are steeped in the ways of activist disruption while simultaneously advocating for a return to norms of good governance,” Zak Cheney-Rice wrote.
The New York Times said that Jones and Pearson’s confrontational style disrupted both Republican power politics and Democrats’ incremental approach to change that was characteristic of the Tennessee House.
RELATED: Rep. Justin Jones: 5 Things To Know About The HBCU Grad Reinstated To Tennessee House After Expulsion
Photo by LPETTET
In a surprise ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a win for Black voters in Alabama. Two of the court’s conservative justices – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh – sided with the three justices on the court’s liberal wing in a decision that reaffirmed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which the high court gutted in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling.
The 5-4 split decision on June 8 struck down Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that civil rights activists said were racially discriminatory. It forced Alabama to comply with a lower court ruling that Black voters should have a majority, or something close to it, in two of the state’s seven congressional districts.

(Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threw a fit in January over the idea of teaching Advanced Placement African American Studies in high schools, so he banned his education department from allowing public schools to offer the course. 

DeSantis has said some of the lessons have an agenda, highlighting topics on Black queer studies and the Movement for Black Lives. The education department sent a letter to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees AP coursework, saying, “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
Several Republican states followed the anti-woke warrior’s lead. In September, Virginia allowed a stripped-down version of AP African American Studies that didn’t include so-called “divisive concepts.” Meanwhile, students in Arkansas were permitted to take the course but not receive graduation credits.
Black educators and activists have accused DeSantis of trying to whitewash America’s racist history, but DeSantis has doubled down, largely ignoring his critics.
The College Board spent more than a decade developing AP African American Studies, drawing on the expertise and input of scholars, including Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
(Photo: Damir Khabirov/Getty Images)
Student loan repayments resume in October following a three-year pause. In June, the Supreme Court delivered a setback for the Biden administration and scores of people with federal student debt when the justices struck down the president’s student loan forgiveness plan.
Announced in August 2022, Biden’s plan would have canceled up to $20,000 of debt for approximately 40 million people.
Biden campaigned in 2020 on a promise to tackle the student loan debt crisis, which disproportionately burdens the finances of Black Americans.
Black college graduates borrow at a higher rate than other racial and ethnic groups, with more than 80 percent of Black bachelor’s degree recipients owing an average of $34,000, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. Unsurprisingly, Blacks also default at a higher rate.
Biden has vowed to find other ways to tackle the student debt crisis. On Oct. 4, the White House announced that Biden approved canceling $9 billion in student loan debt for 125,000 people who qualify under existing programs.

(Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Forbes reported in 2022 about government underfunding historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), titled “How America Cheats its Black Colleges.” HBCUs have filed lawsuits and complained that state governments have, for many decades, shortchanged them compared to predominantly White state colleges. 
In September, the Biden administration gave credence to the grievances and put a dollar figure to the debt state governments owe land-grant HBCUs: $12.6 billion.
Federal agencies urged 16 governors to fix decades of underfunding land-grant HBCUs, highlighting that states have adequately funded predominantly White land-grant institutions.
According to the federal analysis, Tennessee State and North Carolina A&T account for the most significant disparities in state funding, with each underfunded by about $2 billion over 33 years. 
Florida has a $1.9 billion gap in total state appropriations per student between Florida A&M University and the University of Florida, the state’s two land-grant universities.

Hoover, Ala. Police Department
It was all a hoax with severe consequences for missing Black women in a nation that places less urgency on finding them than finding White women. 
In a relatively rare instance, a Black woman, Carlethia “Carlee” Russell, received national media attention after she was reported missing and feared kidnapped on July 13, 2023. But in a stunning turn of events, the Hoover, Ala., resident admitted to fabricating her bizarre kidnapping story.
“My client did not see a baby on the side of the road. My client did not leave the Hoover area when she was identified as a missing person,” Russell’s attorney said at a July 24 news conference.
The late veteran broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill famously coined “Missing White Woman Syndrome” at a 2004 journalism conference to describe the coverage priority newsroom managers give to missing, attractive White women and girls.
“If it’s a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that, every day,” Ifill said, referring to the directive journalists receive.
A 2013 study by Northwestern University sociologist Zack Sommers supports Ifill’s observation. That’s troublesome because Black people are overrepresented among missing people across the nation.
Going forward, will Russell’s case negatively impact the urgency of police and media to find missing Black people?
“We cannot underestimate the impact that that case had because it was the first time a missing Black woman dominated the news cycle and had people from all walks of life aiding in her recovery,” Natalie Wilson, a co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told BET.com.

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