Any history of black people in America will have to look closely at the year 2014. In a cascading series of events that summer, the racial landscape that the nation’s first black president leaves behind—the worst and the best of it—began to take shape. Historians won’t have to look hard to find the worst: On July 17, Eric Garner died after a New York Police Department officer put him in an illegal choke hold. Three weeks later, a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown. Black death has led the news ever since—from Freddie Gray in Baltimore to Sandra Bland in Texas to Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Today, Confederate battle flags fly over victory rallies for the president-elect, a man who campaigned on restoring respect for law and order in the face of those who protested that these lives mattered.
But historians will have to look more closely for evidence of what is arguably Obama’s signature contribution to racial equity in America—one that may not even exist a year from now.