People march near North Ave and Pennsylvania Ave in Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015.
Eric Thayer / Reuters

Last summer, the killings of two unarmed African American men—Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—by white police officers reignited the national conversation about racial inequality in the United States. In both cases, grand juries declined to indict the officers involved. The rulings provoked a wave of protest marches, rallies, and road blockades across the country, as demonstrators of all skin colors proclaimed to the nation and to the world that “black lives matter.”

The upheaval has stood in stark contrast to the promise of a transformation in race relations that President Barack Obama’s inauguration appeared to hold six years ago. For many of Obama’s supporters, his election represented a milestone in U.S. history, marking the dawn of a “postracial” society—a new era in which skin color would no longer stand as a barrier to opportunity or achievement.

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  • FREDRICK C. HARRIS is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
  • ROBERT C. LIEBERMAN is Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.
  • They are the co-editors of Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era (Russell Sage Foundation, 2013), and this essay draws on their contribution to that volume.
  • More By Fredrick C. Harris
  • More By Robert C. Lieberman