These are extraordinary times. Every generation witnesses a pivotal moment in their era. The greatest generation lived through the Depression and World War II. Boomers had the Vietnam War and the turbulence of the Sixties. Generation X grew up under the shadow of the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Millennials had 9/11. Now all of us and the generational babies, Gen Z, are experiencing the Coronavirus pandemic.
The one major difference between this moment and those prior hallmarks in history is that thanks to the internet and social media, we are being inundated with content and commentaries about this event. My own personal appetite for information and editorials seems quite insatiable, whether it is the medical, political, financial, or cultural. And I have a tremendous amount of admiration for those who can distill this moment into a particular focus that gives us a new lens at which to view the world. As an emerging writer, I long for such clarity as my mind is all over the place trying to process the daily unfolding of events.
Yes, most shared tragic events reveal who are most vulnerable in a society. Time and again, we see in clear view the ugly underbelly of our economic, educational, and social institutions nourished by systemic racism, oppression, greed, and the illusion of white male supremacy. The nation was founded on these tenets. Creating and maintaining a vulnerable segment of the population governed by an elite class hoarding resources and power was the intended design.
And yes, this means that low income people of color typically define the most vulnerable. Is anyone surprised that African-Americans and Latinos have been most impacted by this pandemic and this illness? Is it a surprise that white men with guns can threaten a female head of state with zero consequence in protest of a health safety order, but a 12-year old Black boy can be shot dead for playing with a toy gun? Or that a young Black man can be hunted and killed by two white men in a pickup truck while jogging? An incident suppressed by local law enforcement and justified by the age old adage, “He looked like a suspect.” The institutions set in place in this country by those in power were never meant to protect or serve people of color. NEVER.
Yes, this pandemic reveals that we must continue to cite inequitable access to healthcare, implicit bias within the medical community, and other barriers that have made it more difficult for our communities to survive this illness. We must never stop demanding the transformation of the institutions that fail us. And, we must also take an honest look at how we perpetuate our own oppression by fulfilling the wishes of the powers that be through our own choices.
Yes, we should not be judged or blamed for our choices. Black and brown people are as intoxicated by the trappings of the American Dream as anyone. For me, this is not about judgement. It is about understanding that the institutions in the United States were fundamentally designed to oppress us and deny us equality. We know this and we are quick to declare these facts and protest them, but then we spend our dollars on things that enrich others instead of on those that will nourish and sustain us, particularly in times of crisis. What is our investment in our own survival?
Research has shown that obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are dangerous comorbidities associated with the increased death rate of COVID-19. Yes, Black and Latino communities are often food deserts that lack access to healthy food options. And, we also have power in our choices. To the churches that we fund through loyal tithing, use your power to create local farmers market partnerships, bringing healthy food to your congregations after services. Let us get the barber shops and beauty salons in on it. Let us continue to create local opportunities for fitness and well-being, like Girl Trek, a national non-profit focused on Black women’s health through community walking. The more we broaden our perspective and the narrative of what is possible, the best we will be able to sustain ourselves.
And we have to go seek medical attention when we don’t feel right. No more pride. No more fear. Bring an army of friends or family with you to keep doctors in check, but don’t not go. I witnessed an extraordinary chat between Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis the other night and Nikki broke it down, making it clear that we can’t fight the fight if we’re not here on this Earth to do it. It is just that simple.
In my mind, I have often characterized Black folks’ relationship with the US as a codependent one. It is unfortunate that we are forced to live with our oppressor, just as a victim of abuse might be in a home. Every little thing we do has to be directed towards securing our freedom and safety, even if we are not able to leave. My Black and brown brothers and sisters must start thinking about the changes we can make in our lives to reduce our vulnerability to a system that simply does not care about us. It is a harsh reality, but it is no different than the talk we have to have with our Black boys about police and the conduct that is necessary to stay alive. We need to be having these same conversations with ourselves about our health, our choices and to whom we give our resources.
Meanwhile, much has been said about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s competent and consistent management of this crisis. Against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s idiocy and narcissism, Cuomo’s approach and demeanor are a welcome relief in a time of great uncertainty. One admirable thing to note is that Governor Cuomo is determined to understand and unpack the reasons for the greater impact of COVID-19 on African-American and Latino populations. Unlike many others, he refuses to let the conversation end at comorbidities or over-representation in jobs that are on the frontlines. Even as he is still grinding to keep the virus contained in the state, Cuomo has committed to doing the research into this issue and making the changes that will have an impact into the future.
This kind of action gives me hope that maybe the United States will have the political and collective courage to examine the institutions and ways of life that threaten our lives. Maybe we will finally move towards a health care system that provides access to everyone, instead of the privileged few. Maybe we will reconsider the absurdity of paying professional athletes millions of dollars for their entertainment while barely giving teachers a livable wage. Maybe the airlines will stop taking their travelers for granted with outrageous fees, overcrowding, and overbooking to turn a profit at any cost.
In the face of this crisis, Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed the program, Futures for Frontliners, a program that offers free college tuition to the essential workers that are leading the way for all Americans while many work comfortably from home. This bold move speaks to the elephant in the room. Those who are the essential workers, predominantly people of color, come from communities who have historically been iced out of higher education opportunities which lead to more lucrative careers and positions of power. Maybe a move like this will open the doors for greater diversity in the halls of power so that in the long run, decisions will be made in deference to the beautiful multicultural community that is the United States. Decisions that will not leave whole demographic segments of the population vulnerable and forgotten. Decisions that value the contribution of all, instead of the select few under the false premise of their superiority.
Maybe, considering the data on disease and obesity, we will put health at the forefront of the nation’s food supply, instead of profits. Maybe we will prioritize the fair and affordable distribution of quality food while also cutting down on waste and overproduction. There is definitely something wrong with a food industry and system that warrants farmers throwing out tons of food while people are hungry in food lines a mile long. This should not be happening in the most developed nation in the world.
And as we see stores and malls shutter, maybe we will lean back from our obsessive consumerism. Our insatiable acquisition of things that keeps us competing with one another instead of building quality relationships. Maybe with less things to distract us, we will become more intellectually curious about each other and the world around us, valuing the indispensable like art, music, culture, and science. Creative destruction is one of the building blocks of capitalism. It is the idea that has given birth to the endless series of iPhones and big screen TVs. Yet, it has also led to overflowing landfills, diminished natural resources, and mountains of personal debt. Maybe we will learn to temper our demand for the next thing and find contentment in having all that we need.
Yet, when lines of white men donned in camouflage and sporting assault weapons stormed the state capital in Michigan and screamed in the face of law enforcement, I can assure you that every Black person in America said the same thing to themselves. Imagine if they were Black men. There would be a blood bath.
We watch and listen as Trump lies and makes crass, grossly ignorant statements on every topic imaginable and wonder what would happen if it were Barack Obama behaving in such a way. If he had made the p***y comment, his candidacy would have been a non-starter. Now, during this shared global crisis, when the opportunity to learn and be better is upon us, we see business as usual. The folly and destructive force of white supremacy has taken yet another toll.
With hours of time and space to fill during this lockdown or confinement as we call it in French, I decided to binge watch The Looming Tower on Hulu. It is the recounting of the years leading up to 9/11 and the power struggles between the FBI and CIA that ultimately led to the United States government dropping the ball on monitoring those who would eventually carry out the attacks on that day. Yet, another tale of how pissing contests and power plays result in the sacrifice of lives.
COVID-19 is no different. Trump was told in multiple briefings that the spread of the virus was imminent. He blustered as he shut down our borders to China with the racist undertone that was the perfect wink to his supporters. Meanwhile, coronavirus arrived on our shores by way of Europe. Now, he is pushing to reopen the US economy without regard for our citizens’ health because we must get that capitalist engine running again. There has been little mention of the over 70,000 lives lost. There has been no curiosity about the disparities of the impact of the illness. And his cronies have no appetite for supporting the healthcare workers, police, teachers, transit workers and others on the frontlines with much needed state and local funding. Like the crew in Alien or the beachgoers in Jaws, people are expendable in worship of the mighty dollar and retention of power.
When Mitch McConnell and other red state politicians proclaim that they will not give any blue state bailouts, it is a dog whistle. Blue states have big cities with Black and brown people who are takers. Meanwhile, we know the data tells a different story of course, and as these narratives are perpetuated, institutions will not work on our behalf. Alas, Black and brown small businesses were more often than not, left out of the Payroll Protection fund. People who file and PAY United States taxes using an individual identification number instead of a SSN, likely undocumented workers, did not receive any COVID recovery money. Really think on that. Our government insists that workers pay taxes into the system, but during the greatest disruption to our economic and financial security, refuses to include these same individuals in obtaining any relief.
The state of Georgia opened this past week and some of the first images queued up were of people in line to buy the latest athletic shoe. I just shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. Our folks are dying from an illness that attacks us partly because of the cumulative effects of limited access to healthy foods, quality healthcare, and our greater representation in essential jobs, and here we are risking our lives to purchase shoes from a company that doesn’t give a damn about our survival. Nike ain’t thinking about Black people’s health.
Relative to several other countries, the United States is quite young as a sovereign state. At 244 years old, we are at best a toddler with the leader to match. As we continue to grow and age as a nation, one wants to have hope that we will make the necessary changes to bring forth a more just and peaceful society. Yet, we are reminded daily that the United States was founded, not on some great unified fight for independence, but on genocide, enslavement, and the perpetual oppression of the vulnerable for economic and political gain.
This pandemic should facilitate a seismic shift in our values as a country, to a new normal some say. When we look at lines of fellow Americans waiting for food, thousands of body bags filling morgues and trucks, families desperately trying to manage without a paycheck and health insurance, the soul of America should be screaming, “Enough is enough.” We should be demanding radical changes to our antiquated electoral system that disenfranchises the popular will to preserve the political power of a minority. We should be insisting on limiting terms for lifetime politicians who are so intoxicated by power and privilege, they are utterly soulless. We should be investing our dollars in our schools, libraries, local non-profits, and artists.
Instead, we are fighting for our right to buy Michael Jordan’s sneakers and a Wendy’s hamburger as the US Department of Justice and Supreme Court politicize the laws of the land at our expense. All the while, the Democratic party managed to nominate the weakest and most entrenched presidential candidate from the most diverse and talented field ever seen in political history.
Is there a new normal in sight?