Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Alright, it’s over.

The decade that everyone from the analysts at Time magazine to my overly optimistic foreign mother have deemed “the worst decade ever” has come to a close. Having spent my childhood basking in the decadent excess of the 1990s and my formidable years in the harsh throes of the new millennium, I find myself at the perfect balance between confidence and cynicism. And it is with this that I look back on 2009 with a nostalgic twinkle and a “good riddance” guffaw.

However, 2009 pushed the boundaries of what has been our nation’s — hell, the world’s — longest “elephant in the room” debate: our progress in race relations. With the inauguration of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, 2009 began by shattering the proverbial racial ceiling. And not soon after, Obama himself began to do his part in rectifying years of forgotten cultural representation when he chose Sonia Sotomayor as the United States’ first Latino Supreme Court justice. While it didn’t create the racially appealing ruckus that Obama’s win caused — I’m pretty sure I saw him on the cover of Tiger Beat once — to call Sotomayor’s win progress is an understatement: as of 2009, she is only the third woman and third nonwhite Supreme Court justice in history.

In addition, Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history and the first Asian-American governor of a mainland state, became the third Asian-American elected for Obama’s racially conscious cabinet.

But let’s not give Obama all the credit, especially because giving him any is so 2008. No, much of our racial upheaval is, believe it or not, thanks to us. The people! The everyday citizens — a large majority of whom still deny civil rights to one another. We preach progress, but only in footsteps. A mad dash to cultural equilibrium is far from a priority.

What has been a priority, however, has been the attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And for once, Third World countries are making their voices heard. This past December in Copenhagen at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, China, India, and other developing nations blocked climate talks, bringing negotiations to a standstill in an attempt to equalize greenhouse gas restrictions between richer countries and the Third World.

Representatives from the developing countries — all 135 of them — stated that they “refuse to participate in any working groups at the 192-nation summit until the issue is resolved.”

This represents a large stride for countries that have typically been both underdeveloped and underrepresented. With the willingness to fill the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the Third World’s actions allowed the Copenhagen talks to become a foreground for cultural provocation.

Yet if there is anything 2009 taught us, it’s that politics are secondary to popular culture. And when news of Michael Jackson’s death spread worldwide, everything short of the Second Coming paled in comparison. Twitter’s multiple servers crashed due to over-tweeting, a term that I’m fairly sure isn’t real. Facebook was littered with statuses reciting a bevy of Jackson lyrics, to the point where my collective news feed looked more like a “Best Of” compilation. “Larry King Live!” became a month-long remembrance, with everyone from family members to former nannies feeling the need to speak about the King of Pop’s untimely passing (I, however, was done once LaToya’s childhood friend felt the need to speak out. Jackson was a fan of pizza? You don’t say).

But what did Jackson mean? It’s easy to look back on the last few years and see more scandals than singles, but in the larger scope of a career that can only be deemed as legendary, the passing of Michael Jackson marked the death of our first race-defining superstar. He’s been single-handedly credited for integrating MTV, a network where in the early 1980s, videos featuring black recording artists were nothing short of an anomaly. Civil rights leaders such as Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have asserted Jackson’s role in allowing African-Americans to win the hearts of white mainstream America.

On the flip side, pro golfer Tiger Woods became the poster boy for an astonishing fall from grace. Woods was the icon of a racial utopia, one in which his neutrality left him as an ideal figure for a sport which up until 1997 had to actively stop “black bans” around the country — ironically the same year that Woods won the Masters Tournament. With Caucasian, African-American, Native American, Chinese and Thai nationality, Woods represented the post-racial shift for a predominantly white sport. And until his recent infidelity scandal, he was progress incarnate.

Yikes, but why end on such a bleak note? Especially in the year that saw Jim Yong Kim named the president of Dartmouth College, making him the first Asian-American president of an Ivy League, as well as the cross-cultural support of Iranian citizens during the summer’s controversial election. What matters is that we continue onward, that we look at the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium as not a clean slate, but a continuation of growing race relations, both domestically and internationally. With my Facebook news feed finally Jackson-free, 2010 is already shaping up. I would say it’s going to be the bomb, but as a Middle Easterner, some things are still touchy.