If there is one message that’s been made clear with this global crisis, it’s this: racism is the national emergency. Yet, we’ve lived under this crippling reality for hundreds of years without any systemic acknowledgment of what this has done to people of color for generations. This pandemic has magnified the way race, class, and other benefits allow the more privileged to survive. In this country, we strengthen the white, the wealthy, the folks with homes, those with access to have others shop for them or click buttons on their computers to do shopping. While those situated in poverty struggle to eat and pay rent or mortgages, the middle class and wealthy are hoarding supplies and buying up more things to adapt to this new reality.
Survival under capitalism has always been connected to having access to resources. My family is blessed to sit in incredible privilege. We are healthy, we have a roof over our heads, we can hire personal shoppers to deliver our groceries, we have an outdoor space to enjoy the sun in, my wife and I can both work from home, we both have our jobs, we can enjoy the comforts that electricity and water bring. The list of ways we have privilege is extensive and for this, we are immensely grateful. Yet, we are aware of how quickly this all can come crashing down on us because of our demography. Our zip code and skin color are determinants that make other families like ours not as fortunate.
This pandemic has taught us that privilege is impermanent. From one day to the next, our world can dramatically change. On a massive scale, we have made pivots to everything that was seemingly impossible to do before: allowing parents to work full time while caring for children full time, allowing employees to work exclusively from home, and many others. However, one constant that has not shifted is the profound legacy and depth of racism in this country. This pandemic has only amplified its deadly effects.
Inequities exacerbate inequities.
Black and Brown communities are more prone to health issues. This is due to a variety of reasons but most are not genetic or related to skin color. They are related to what kind of food we eat because of what food costs and where we can access it. They are related to the quality of our air both indoors and out. We know that the most polluted air is the air in our communities due to its close proximity to: factories, toxic waste dumps, oil refineries, airports, and shipping ports.
On a mental health level, we carry intergenerational trauma and other trauma daily. The effects of racism and microaggressions can evoke anxiety and anger. Our lived environment is often on high alert and crisis mode at all times -- gunshots, police presence, crime; these are just some examples. Folks are losing jobs in record numbers and along with it, typically, a loss of health insurance. Many Black and Brown folks are disproportionately having jobs as ‘essential workers’ which further put us in danger. Imagine the toll of having to go to work every morning and knowing you are risking your life in the process yet feeling financially obligated to do so.
As a resident of East Oakland, I can check boxes off for each of these in our Black and Brown communities in the Bay area. In West Oakland, we have the pollution of the port of Oakland where shipping containers come from all over the world to dock their goods. In my neighborhood, we have the Oakland Airport, a huge air and noise polluter. Though seemingly a small nuisance, noise pollution has been linked to greater risk for cardiovascular disease and increased blood pressure. If you look at Los Angeles, one study
showed that the amount of air pollutants produced by Los Angeles International Airport is equal to the particulate-matter pollution of 174 to 491 freeway miles. Scientists concluded that this is the primary source of pollution in the Los Angeles area. Not so far from us, we have Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond- a known polluter. This is a health inequality that is a common pattern in nearly every city in this country that has Black and Brown folks. In fact, 71 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latinos live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards.
These are statistics to illuminate the direct line to environmental racism.
Given these realities, COVID-19 is seriously affecting and killing a disproportionate amount of Black and Brown folks in this country. This pandemic is exposing truths we’ve long known. Access matters. Despite the positive press about laptop distribution and free internet access, we shouldn’t believe the hype. Laptops and internet access isn’t getting into the hands of most of the students that truly need them. In Philadelphia, where my wife is from, Philadelphia Public Schools told their families they have to go to school parking lots to be able to tap into the internet.
This was their solution to families not having the internet. Fortunately, they have since pivoted as a result of pushback from the community. Instead, they are hoping to issue hotspots though the demand is too great to make it a reality.
As we imagine what schools can look like when they open, it will be critical for conversations to acknowledge the learning slide that has occurred for our most vulnerable students. I hope we can begin to discuss, acknowledge and plan for a dramatic increase in social workers and mental health professionals in schools. Even before the pandemic, schools across the country were already sorely lacking the mental health professionals in schools. Currently, 80% of students that need access to mental health workers do not have it
. Only 3 states (New Hampshire, Montana, and Vermont) are meeting the recommended 1:250 ratio of counselor to student ratios.
In my state of California, that ratio is an alarming 682 students per counselor.
Many students have lost the few safe havens they had outside their homes. We need virtual mental health professionals now for our emergency remote learning context. We know that if there are abusers living in the same household a student will not even be forthright about how they are doing for fear of consequences. We have the added trauma of losing neighbors, friends and family. Students are experiencing triggers to other deaths they’ve grieved or experienced prior to this pandemic.
We know conscious and unconscious racial bias exists across all systems and people in this country. Before COVID-19 hit us in this country, there were stories about Italy having to make decisions between who lived and who died because they didn’t have enough respirators or hospital beds for their sick. The translations here in a racially diverse country with 56% of physicians identifying as white means that the decisions for who lives and who dies will be made based on unconscious bias and racism.
In Chicago, my hometown, the percentage of Black folks making up the totality of COVID-19 deaths has been 70%, despite the fact that they constitute only 29% of the city’s population. This is alarming. And if we turn the mirror to what is happening in Chicago Public Schools, only 55% of CPS students have access to laptops out of the 115,000 students that have been identified to need them.
There are stories like these across our major cities. Stories that continuously rear racism's ugly head. Stories of trauma, lack of access, of valuing the lives of the more privileged over others. It is a circular narrative for us Black and Brown folks, a nightmare we cannot ever shake off.
A Call to Action
Our family has actively discussed the ways we can give back to our communities during this pandemic. Since we are no longer commuting, we are saving money on gas, toll charges, and eating out for lunch. This money is being re-purposed to help out friends that haven’t been as fortunate and have lost their jobs. We are ordering take out from friends who have catering companies and restaurants they are trying to keep open. We are donating to food banks helping all families stay fed. We are continuing to pay for our son's preschool tuition so that the teachers can count on their paychecks. These are just small ways we contribute and I urge you all to do the same.
As our federal government has given states the license to go rogue and release stay at home mandates, I urge you all to continue to stay at home despite what your state orders. We are taking action by our inaction. We are helping those on the front lines: our medical workers, grocery workers, and those of our most vulnerable populations. While many of us privileged folks have the access and means to figure how to navigate shelter in place, so many of those situated in poverty, Black and Brown folks do not have that same option as there are, in many cases, insurmountable odds against them. The revolution is at home.
It is my hope this all inspires some action, some generosity, some giving, and some fighting from all of you. All the folks that like me live in incredible privilege to be able to see both sides of this nasty pandemic. Let’s snap out of our complacency. There are lives on the line.
We have been historically forgotten, neglected then and now. Since our systems have repeatedly shown to fail us, let’s not fail each other. Let us love through this, let us be compassionate and deliberate about supporting each other in time and money. Let us not forget the real tragedy right now: persistent and heavily rooted racism. Let’s begin to treat and heal it as such.