Black Lives Matter and the New Civil Rights Movement
The Black Lives Matter movement started as a Twitter hashtag in 2012 after George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, then gained momentum after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year. And while the movement is most closely associated with law enforcement violence against black Americans, it has also been described as part of a "new civil rights movement."
That movement brought the Confederate flag down at the South Carolina capitol, got the attention of presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and was a runner-up for Time magazine's Person of the Year. Black Lives Matter inspired the racial justice protests at the University of Missouri, which spread to other universities around the country.
This year brought tragedy as well. The Confederate flag only came down after nine people were shot and killed at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And the death of Julian Bond, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a life of civil rights activism, was felt strongly among both the new generation of student activists and civil rights veterans.
Celebrating anniversaries and breaking new barriers
This was a year of both historic firsts historic anniversaries. Viola Davis was the first black woman to win an Emmy award for best actress in a television drama, Misty Copeland became the first black principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and Lester Holt got a historic promotion to solo anchor of the NBC Nightly News.
March 7 was the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. John Legend and Common won the Academy Award for their song "Glory" from the movie Selma, and Legend's acceptance speech noted that there are "more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."
December 1 was the 60th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus. This year, Loretta Lynch became the first black woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, fifty years after Thurgood Marshall became the first black Solicitor General. The Supreme Court of 2015 is very different from the court Justice Marshall joined in 1967.
Justice in black and white
This was a busy year for the Supreme Court for cases challenging—and seeking to define—racial discrimination. A bipartisan group of prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reverse the death sentence of Timothy Foster, who was convicted after the prosecutor struck all potential black jurors from serving.
The Court upheld the use of "disparate impact" evidence to prove racial discrimination in housing. The case highlights one of the central debates over race: progressives argue that segregation and disparate outcomes are evidence of racism that must be eradicated, whereas many conservatives suggest that efforts to reverse the results of past discrimination would require us to preference members of disadvantaged racial groups.
This debate was at the center of the arguments challenging the constitutionality of the University of Texas's affirmative action plan this month. During the argument, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that some black students would be better at "slower track" colleges, and Chief Justice John Roberts asked, "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?" Teaching Justice Roberts not to bring the Socratic method to a scientific method fight, a group of 2000 physicists wrote a letter in support of affirmative action and diversity in sciences.
That letter included a passage that perfectly frames the recent debates about white supremacy and racial equality in the United States:
We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant  and ask, “Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?”
We reject the premise that the value of black lives needs to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in our society is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that people of color are valuable and ask, "Why does our society routinely fail valuable people of color?"