The following is a paper that I wrote for my winter term class "Social Problems" at Cazenovia College. The essay prompt was to write about what I consider to be the most important social problem of 2016. Enjoy!
2016 was a year filled with excitement. One of the most interesting presidential elections in history caused much controversy throughout the year. It was a very polarized election year, which sparked much debate over public policy and social issues across the country. Americans were focused on the nation’s various social problems as they debated who is most fit to handle them over the next four years. 2016 made it very evident that there is a plethora of social problems in the United States, all of which are important to each and every citizen. However, the current state of race relations could possibly be the most significant social problem of the year. A social problem is defined as “a social condition that a segment of society views as harmful to members of society, and is in need of remedy” (Schacht, Mooney, & Knox, 2016). Many events and phenomena throughout the year illustrate this claim, such as questionable police shootings of African Americans, the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, and Donald Trump’s xenophobic stance on illegal immigration.
Racial Bias in Police Incidents
A database maintained by The Washington Post states that 991 people were shot and killed by police officers in 2015, 258 of which were black. The same research indicates that 495 whites were shot and killed in the same year, and in 66 accounts race was unspecified (Washington Post, 2016). The difference between 495 white people and 258 black people seems to contradict the claim that blacks are killed by police more often than whites. However, according to Lowrey for The Washington Post, whites represent 62 percent of the national population where blacks represent 13 percent of the national population (2016). This means, Lowrey writes, “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers” (2016).
In 2016, multiple fatal shootings of black men resulted in outrage across the country, especially in the cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Following these two incidents, which were vastly covered by the media, five Dallas police officers were shot and killed during a peaceful protest on behalf of Sterling and Castile (McGee, Fernandez, & Bromwich, 2016). This series of events highlights the current tension in race relations in the United States. Many police departments across the country have found incidents of racial bias on the part of their officers, one notable example being the Chicago Police Department (Davey & Smith, 2016). Activist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, have attempted to shed light on the issue through protests, but many people continue to believe that blacks are complaining about nothing, further creating division in the country. Extremists on the other side of the coin, such as the man who shot the Dallas officers, are being associated with Black Lives Matter, which does not condone violence.
Racial discrimination by police is obviously an important social problem in the United States, and we cannot begin to improve the situation until the public is better educated on race issues. Many are uninformed about race issues, choosing not to “see color” as their means of expressing not being racist. Unfortunately, it is the very decision to not “see color” that leads people to ignore the issues within the black community and the issues they face concerning police bias and other forms of discrimination. Further misunderstanding of race issues can be seen in attitudes against the very saying of the words “black lives matter.” Comedian Michael Che hilariously says during his Netflix special, “We can’t even agree on ‘black lives matter.’ [Today] that’s a controversial statement. Black lives matter. Not matters more than you, just matters…That’s where were starting the negotiations” (Che & Rodriguez, 2016). Many people hear this phrase and think that it is unfair to focus specifically on black people, therefore countering it with “all lives matter.” This is a statement that sounds inclusive but works in a similar way to not “seeing color” by ignoring serious issues that impact minorities.
The Dakota Access Pipeline Controversy
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a project meant to tap into oil reserves in Northern North Dakota and flow crude oil across the Dakotas, Iowa, and Illinois. Controversy about the project started when members of the Sioux Standing Rock Tribe filed complaints that the pipeline would be constructed across sacred indigenous lands and may contaminate local water sources. Native Americans began protesting at construction sites of the pipeline. Police were dispatched to disperse the protestors, and used rubber bullets, water cannons, and other riot weapons to do so (Yan, 2016). With the U.S. election happening, little media attention was paid to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It was not until after the election that news outlets began covering the story. Up until that point, a large social media movement against the pipeline was the only thing garnering attention to the issue.
Maps of the pipeline’s planned route show that the pipeline would not pass through any reservations, which is why the protestors were met with such strong opposition. What oil companies and proponents of the pipeline fail to understand is that the pipeline will cross lands that once belonged to the Native American tribes of the area. There are many areas throughout that region that are sacred to the tribe. The United States has a long history of taking land and life from Native American tribes to the point where they represent a small number of our population. The pipeline project would undoubtedly contribute to history repeating itself. Also, if the pipeline were to spring a leak, it could seriously endanger water sources that local reservations rely on (Yan, 2016). A different pipeline in North Dakota recently leaked over 170,000 gallons into a creek, which will have a substantial impact on the environment (McLaughlin, 2016).
The pipeline is a huge issue having to do with race. There is much misunderstanding about Sioux values and beliefs, which were all major factors for protestors. The United States has constantly taken land from the Native Americans that was truly sacred to them. Also, the police that responded to protests used riot weapons that sent many people to the hospital. Questions have been raised as to whether police would have responded the same way if protestors were white. Overall, opposition that protestors met symbolize the evident disrespect for Native Americans and their lands and culture.
Donald Trump’s Immigration Policy
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, he claimed that he would build a wall across the United States-Mexico border to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country. During one of his speeches, he told supporters that the people who cross the Mexican border are bringing crime, drugs, and are rapists (Schwartz, 2015). Trump’s rhetoric during this speech passed on to his supporters, creating a very negative atmosphere for undocumented immigrants in the United States. One example is a video of a Trump supporter who yelled racist and profane insults at a Mexican-American woman and told her to “go (sic.) cook my burrito” (Towle, 2016).
Trump’s implication that undocumented immigrants from Mexico come over just to commit crime is a very wrong notion. There are only 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and only around half are from Mexico. The entire undocumented immigrant population has been decreasing over the last few years, and only 7.5 percent are criminals. Some of the immigrants crossed the border illegally, but many others simply overstayed their visas. People who are natural citizens of the United States are way more likely to commit crime than undocumented people (The Week Staff, 2016). In truth, many of the undocumented immigrants from Mexico simply wish for a better life and often take the jobs that natural citizens do not want. Hard work is an important belief in Latin-American culture, yet Donald Trump makes them out to be lazy criminals who are sponging off American taxpayers. Trump’s misinformed allegations of undocumented immigrants was mostly inspired by racial stereotypes of the population. Still, his immigration policy was one of the central points of his campaign and remained a significant reason as to why Americans supported him in the 2016 election.
As 2016 ends, many people believe that the United States is a highly-divided nation. Racial tensions across the country are a contributing factor to this belief, as many are stuck in an us-against-them mentality following a highly-controversial election year. The end of 2016 leaves race relations in an undesirable state. Racial bias in police incidents are still an issue in society. The Dakota Access Pipeline protestors recently achieved success in delaying the project, but the fight is not over and many still have no understanding or respect for Native American culture. Lastly, Donald Trump will be our next president, and he and his cabinet will likely cause more havoc for undocumented immigrants who are in the country simply for a better life. Race relations was a prominent social problem in 2016, and will most likely be one again in 2017. There is much improvement to be done on how Americans treat people who are different from themselves, and much education on social issues is required to make a difference.
Che, M., & Rodriguez, O. (Directors). (2016). Michael Che Matters [Streaming]. Netflix.
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Lowery, W. (2016, July 11). Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp...
McGee, P., Fernandez, M., & Bromwich, J. E. (2016, July 11). Snipers kill 5 Dallas officers at protest against police shootings. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/dallas-police...
McLaughlin, M. (2016, December 12). North Dakota Pipeline spills an estimated 176, 000 gallons of oil. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/north-dakota-p...
Schacht, C., Mooney, L., & Knox, D. (2016). Understanding social problems (10th ed.). United States: Cengage Learning.
Schwartz, I. (2015, June 16). Trump: Mexico not sending us their best; criminals, drug dealers and rapists are crossing border. Real Clear Politics. Retrieved from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/06/16/...
Towle, A. (2016, June 22). Racist, vile Trump supporter goes viral: “Go cook my burrito, bitch.” Towler Road. Retrieved from http://www.towleroad.com/2016/06/trump-supporter/
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Yan, H. (2016, October 28). Dakota access pipeline: What’s at stake? CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/07/us/dakota-access-pip...