Unless you have serious psychological issues, you recognize the grave danger the COVID-19 pandemic poses for our global community.
This is a time of great loss. The worst tragedies are the loss of our loved ones. And in addition to these heartbreaks, we also must bear the simultaneous catastrophes of the loss of income, the destabilization of our families and the destruction of whatever marginal security we may have had.
Because COVID–19 is going to leave communities around the world in ashes and rubble – financially, socially and emotionally – it is extremely important that we, as people of color, stay strong and focused.
This murderous virus does not discriminate based on race or economic status, but the social structures under which we live leave some of us more exposed than others to its dangers. And facts, borne out by data, show that people of color and the poor are dying of the virus at a rate disproportionate to our percentage of the general population.
In the midst of this pandemic, it is not easy to see clearly all the circumstances contributing to the misery we now suffer. Amid the scramble to survive, we are left with little time to reflect on why it is killing African Americans and other people of color faster than wealthy white people. As in the fog of war, the fog of crisis narrows our focus on the enemy directly in front of us from moment to moment. And it takes critical analysis to understand why this is happening to us.
The answer to this question also reveals why whites generally live longer than people of color: We live in different worlds.
This might be an extraordinary thing to say if it was not for the reality of environmental racism.
Environmental racism creates different worlds for different people. It created the toxic water crisis in Flint, Mich. It is one reason Puerto Rico has not fully recovered more than two years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria left it devastated in 2017. And for years after New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, its rehabilitation was neglected because of environmental racism. These tragedies, which never would have been tolerated in predominantly white and wealthy communities, are only a few examples of environmental racism. Interstate highways and exchanges cut through predominantly Black urban areas. Many urban areas populated by people of color are classified as food deserts by the federal government. And in a 1987 study titled “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice found that “indeed, race has been a factor in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the United States.” Those facilities have been deliberately located in and near communities of color, resulting in a disproportionate number of individuals having their health compromised and being more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.
For people of color, our fight for survival must be fought on multiple fronts, and now COVID-19 has opened yet another one.
We should not despair, however, over the dangerous road ahead. Instead, we should take a lesson from our ancestors, many of whom suffered slavery or oppressive colonialism in times past. The generations that emerged from under these evils to educate themselves and their children while building lives, communities and institutions in the face of racism set an example for us to follow. We must support and rely on each other while demanding fair treatment from a reluctant government. Threats to our health and welfare have always been compounded by social injustice. And so it is with this COVID-19 pandemic.
With one arm we must shield ourselves and our communities from encroachments and threats like pandemics and, with our other arm, we must wield the sword of justice to eliminate public policy inequities born of racism and notions of white superiority and then inflicted upon us.
Our greater vulnerability to COVID-19 is the result of conscious and deliberate decisions by policy makers under the influence of racial bigotry and belief in white superiority. It is not enough for us to beat back this deadly virus. We also must also strategize and work to eliminate those injustices that make us the most vulnerable in its path. And we must work with those who recognize these injustices in order to tackle these problems collectively.
Out of the ashes and rubble of this worldwide tragedy we must build a new and more just world.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.