I usually express optimism here about once annually, and rather than procrastinating I decided to get it out of the way early this year.
One of the lessons of American history is that we're capable of social change but we take our sweet time doing it. Think about Dwight Eisenhower calling on American blacks to exercise "patience" in their calls for equal rights – nearly a century after the 14th Amendment ostensibly guaranteed them (and Thurgood Marshall's sick burn response, "I'm the world's original gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough.") And of course here we are sixty years later with some of the same problems left unresolved. We're….a little slow sometimes. Glacial, even.
There are some less bleak examples, though. In the past 20 years Americans, particularly those born since 1980, have done an about-face on gay marriage (57% opposed in 2001, 57% in favor today). That might not seem like much, but swings in public opinion on social issues usually play out over decades. The fall from 57% opposed in 2001 to 39% opposed today is significant.
As completely hopeless as the problem of excessive force and institutionalized racism in law enforcement seems – God knows the death toll isn't subsiding – I think Americans are starting to get it. Not all of us, of course. There's 30% of the population that is intractable on this and many other issues for a variety of reasons (usually something to do with racism and/or an Authoritarian-Follower personality type). The recent incident in McKinney, TX not only resulted in the cop losing his job but didn't see the usual number of people rushing in to defend him. Sure, some people still defended him, the ones would defend a white cop beheading someone for no reason as long as that person happened to be young and black. Moreso than other recent incidents, even those in which someone ended up dying, we seem much more willing to look at this video and say, "What the hell is wrong with that guy." I think – hope – that a growing number of people see this endless stream of videos of police brutality and weekly stories about unarmed black men being shot and think that maybe there's some kind of pattern here. If nothing else, people who don't pay attention to anything going on in this country might be forced into awareness through sheer repetition.
Don't get me wrong, there remain plenty of problems. Incidents in which cops actually get punished or prosecuted still inevitably require a bystander's video to keep the system from reverting to the default setting of believing whatever story the cops concoct. And the willingness of Americans to see themselves as Good People who have rights while others are Bad People who don't (or, more accurately, that the violation of their rights is fine because they're Bad and unworthy of sympathy) remains disturbingly high. Prosecutors and juries are deferential to police to the point of absurdity. Despite all that, there are reasons to be optimistic; not that the problem will be solved by Christmas or your next one's free, but that we are moving in a positive direction. The first step in solving the problem is admitting that it exists.