As we near the end of 2009, it’s fitting to review the major events, developments, and trends in U.S. racial/ethnic relations in 2009. Therefore, below is my look back at some of the positive highlights as well as the setbacks in terms of achieving racial/ethnic equality, with a particular focus on Asian Americans (my area of expertise). This list is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all racial/ethnic news in 2009, but rather the ones that I covered in this blog and ones that I believe have the most sociological significance.

The Best

The Worst

As we turn the page on 2009 and the entire decade (one that many Americans would like to forget), let’s hope that 2010 and the new decade will lead to more prosperity, equality, and harmony for Americans from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

So much for the Obama effect.

Many Americans seemed to think that Barack Obama’s victory to become our nation’s first non-White President represented the end of racism in America and that our society had finally moved past skin color as a marker of social hierarchy. Sadly, they were and continue to be wrong.

As many media organizations and blogs have reported and summarized in the MSNBC video below, a private club in suburban Philadelphia reneged on an arrangement to allow a group of Black and Latino children to use their swimming pool, with many White club member parents allegedly uttering racial slurs to the children:

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what “black kids” were doing at the club, Wright said. . . .

Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments. . . .

“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s payment without explanation, said Wright. . .

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said. . . . “Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.” . . .

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.

My fellow blogger sociologist Jessie at RacismReview.com elaborates on some of the details of the incident and sums up the sociological context of this incident quite well:

It’s a good thing that there are laws in place that prohibit racial discrimination of this sort, and that people were outraged this happened, and that a U.S. Senator is stepping up to investigate and, at least potentially, take some action against these perpetrators of swimming pool racism.

Yet, it’s an appalling fact to realize that nearly fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, we are still grappling with the continuing significance of racism in public places. We are, apparently, still at a point where we’re having to investigate people for violating the prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Think about these kids in Northeast Philly next time you hear someone use the phrase “post-racial.”

Seriously, this is 2009, not 1909, right?

Without doubt, the actual incident is pretty shocking and appalling — White parents pulling their children out of the pool once Black and Latino children began using it, allegedly using racial slurs against the non-White children, and then the club abruptly canceling their earlier arrangement without any apology or explanation.

These events by themselves are pretty clear violations of federal and state laws which prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in public and private facilities and I hope the club is prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent possible. Incidents like this are completely unacceptable in American society.

But as a sociologist, I also find it interesting to observe the club’s subsequent explanation and “apology,” offered several days after the incident and only after it was bombarded with media coverage and the threat of criminal prosecution. Specifically, as the MSNBC article quoted above notes, the club’s officials denied that race was a factor in the club’s actions and rather, it was safety concerns and a lack of space.

Most recently, the club has offered to have the summer camp kids back, but only “as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.” Nice try, but that just basically means that as long as club members have enough advance notice, they can stay away from the club on the day the summer camp kids use it. How magnanimous of them.

These club officials need to wake up and smell what they’re shoveling.

This line of thinking is an example of colorblind ignorance at its best (or would that be, at its worst?) — taking pains to deny that race was ever a factor in one’s actions and trying to pretend or convince oneself that you, your members, and your organization has any hint of racial prejudice at all. After all, that would be so 20th century and we’re living in a “post racial” society now, aren’t we?

The sad truth is, we are living in American society, one that is still highly racialized and one in which the misguided allure of colorblindness has instead blinded us to the fundamental racist sentiments that many individual Americans consciously or unconsciously still have, the social segregation that still divides us along color lines, and the institutional racial inequalities that allow such sentiments to exist.

The calendar may say it’s 2009 but apparently, the racial consciousness of many Americans is about a 100 years behind.

In case you were not already familiar, the term “White Flight” refers to the phenomenon of White residents leaving central urban areas of major cities and moving into suburbs or even farther. This process began after World War II and coincided with the birth of suburbanization.

Unfortunately, White flight is also associated with the systematic segregation and “ghettoization” of people of color in these same central urban areas. That is, a combination of unequal government policies, discriminatory lending practices, and unethical real estate agents led to a vast majority of the Black population being prevented from joining the suburbanization movement and instead, were left behind isolated in neglected and marginalized central cities.

However, things apparently are changing. As the Wall Street Journal reports, in recent years, demographers and city planners have noticed that in many metropolitan areas, White flight has slowed considerably and in many of these cities, has actually been reversed. That is, because of increased investment and development (some would call it gentrification) of downtown areas, many Whites are returning to the central cities. However, this slow reversal of White flight has led to some unanticipated consequences for people of color:

Between 2000 and 2006, eight of the 50 largest cities, including Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, saw the proportion of whites increase, according to Census figures. The previous decade, only three cities saw increases.

The changing racial mix is stirring up quarrels over class and culture. Beloved institutions in traditionally black communities — minority-owned restaurants, book stores — are losing the customers who supported them for decades. As neighborhoods grow more multicultural, conflicts over home prices, taxes and education are opening a new chapter in American race relations. . . .

In recent years, minority middle-class families, particularly African-Americans, have been moving to the suburbs in greater numbers. At the same time, Hispanic immigrants (who poured into cities from the 1970s through the 1990s) are now increasingly bypassing cities for suburbs and rural areas, seeking jobs on farms and in meat-packing plants.

Cities have spent a decade tidying up parks and converting decaying factories into retail and living space. That has attracted young professionals and empty-nesters, many of them white.

The article goes on to mention a few more interesting points. First is that as middle-class Blacks leave the central cities, those who are left are predominantly lower-income and as a result, the tax base gets smaller as well, further reinforcing and perpetuating poverty.

Second is that as White residents slowly return to the central cities, some tensions with residents of color have risen. Such tensions may initially be based on class differences (i.e., most returning Whites are middle class or affluent) while resident of color are more likely to be working class), but inevitably, it leads to racial overtones.

For example, the article mentions that in New York City, a group of White parents proposed creating a new, separate school inside Public School 84. Not surprisingly, a large number of minority parents saw this proposal as blatant racial segregation, since the proposed new school would presumably consist almost entirely of White students.

From a sociological point of view, this trend of reversing White flight is most interesting because it represents an 180 degree turn of a long-established and momentous process that has taken decades to occur, has resulted in significant social changes and inequalities, and has still not ended entirely.

With that in mind and at least on the surface, we should be thankful for its reversal. However, as the article points out, the return of Whites to central cities has led to a different set of problems and tensions, many of them rather unexpected.

It just goes to show that race relations is not a simple equation that can be solved easily. Instead, it is a dynamic and fluid mix of historical and contemporary factors that operates on many levels and can have multiple and contradictory outcomes. In other words, we as sociologists have our work cut out for us here.