COVID-19 came and I was a little amazed at how relatively quickly everyone around the world actually complied and began to shelter in place. Shortly thereafter, I was even more surprised that some African-Americans, some highly intelligent and educated, told me that black people can’t get it.
I don’t know how that myth started. Blacks in North America suffered two and a half centuries of slavery until emancipation, nearly a century of Jim Crow after the end of Reconstruction, 60 years of separate but equal until Brown v. Board of Education and decades of ongoing housing discrimination.
So it’s understandable that they hoped there would be at least one thing in the world, a virus that originated in China, that at least wouldn’t hit them harder than it did everyone else.
Blacks were disabused of that idea pretty quickly. Black people are not immune. In fact, blacks have been disproportionately affected by this virus. They are less likely to be tested and more likely to be infected and more likely to die from it.
Over the past few months, along with the rest of America, we have learned how COVID-19 attacks the lungs and makes breathing difficult. It has been described as feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest as you are gasping for air. The images and the accounts of patients in intensive care for COVID-19 almost all involve severe shortness of breath. The local and federal governments took great measures to ensure that hospitals had ventilators. Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists put themselves in harm’s way every day to keep patients oxygenated.
Blacks are still trying to process the overwhelming evidence that black people are dying at a faster rate. But the national discussion has moved on to lifting restrictions and going back to work without much consideration of moving resources and putting in place safeguards for the most vulnerable communities.
In my mind, that read as “black people are dying at a faster rate and I guess some of your brothers and sisters are just going to have to die.” (“Brothers and sisters” is not the term that I used in my head.) It left me feeling devalued, expendable, someone who doesn’t matter. It signaled to me that my brothers and sisters, family, mother in a nursing home, my African-American friends and community, are all just collateral damage.
As blacks continue to try to wrap their head around the data and the need for more frontline health care workers, they remember Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician who was fatally shot while asleep in her bedroom by police executing a no-knock warrant. They also remember Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old black man who was pursued and killed by armed white residents in a coastal South Georgia town.
As we came together, sheltered in place and sacrificed together to attack this common enemy that literally robs us of our breath, Memorial Day weekend was supposed to symbolize a bit of a turning point.
Yet in the cruelest of ironies, on the very weekend America began to lift more restrictions, and then the message was that we would be able to exhale together as a nation, COVID-19’s foot remained on the chest of black people and law enforcement had its knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Again, blacks are on the frontlines. This is already a very difficult time for everyone. There’s a little more sadness, pressure and tension in all of our lives. Although it is said that we’re all in it together, we are all experiencing it differently.
Throughout this pandemic we have attempted to define what is taking place with terms like: the new normal, the next normal and the world has changed as we know it. We’ve also referred to this as a time of reflection — when we can check in with ourselves and take inventory on who we are and who we want to be individually and collectively. It’s a time where we should learn a new skill, take up a language and work on some new projects.
Despite all the terms and euphemisms that we’re using, blacks are being reminded that they are still black in America. As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said: “A Pullman porter told me that he had been in every city in the country, he was sure. And he had never been in any city in the United States where he had to put a hand up in front of his face to find out he was a Negro.”
The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd remind us that black people’s humanity can be put aside; they can still be viewed as different, less than, and can suffer harm or death at the hands of those who can say they are acting in the name of the law or at the knees of those who hold a police badge.
George Floyd was arrested, handcuffed, held down on the ground by the knee of a police officer on his neck as he pleaded, “Sir, I can’t breathe” and called out for his mother. The officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The image of George Floyd’s death is excruciatingly painful to watch, and 1,000 times worse for me when I viewed it with my 11-year-old son. I failed miserably at controlling my reactions, while trying to answer my son when he asked, “But why is he doing that?”
Toward the end of the ’90s I worked on the NYPD recruitment campaign. The NYPD was under a tremendous amount of scrutiny over the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old, unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 41 times, and the torture and sexual assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in police custody. Over 20 years later we are still having the same conversation and asking ourselves, how can such a thing happen.
This racial inequity and systematic mistreatment of black people needs to be protested.
Witnessing the civil unrest and the burning buildings is very upsetting and sad. But we must not ignore the intersectionality of different communities. You do not have to be a resident of Minneapolis to be outraged and want to go there to peacefully protest.
I appreciate the peaceful protesters. I am sure that there are some folks out there simply for the purpose of causing chaos. I also agree that violence and causing damage is not aligned with our values and that it’s not OK to do those things.
I still want to know what those violent protesters are trying to say and communicate. Have we given rise to a group of people who do not have the tools to articulate their disdain for the injustice and atrocities they’ve witnessed at the hands of those charged with the responsibility to protect us and keep us safe? What role have we played in creating the environment that encourages this behavior?
I know that I am upset, hurt, outraged, angry and scared. I too am a black man with a young black son. I have nieces, nephews, family and members of my community who are black. I know that our allies are also feeling upset and angry but experiencing the hurt and pain differently.
But I also have to acknowledge my privilege. I have the ability to work remotely, and I praise God that I’ve been in a position where I’m able to provide for my family these past couple of months.
We’ve moved from shelter-in-place global pandemic to melee. We need to understand all the drivers. We need to extend a certain sense of empathy for all those involved. We are currently in this place because we have lost empathy for each other.
We must extend that empathy to everyone — including the police. Not the officers who are directly responsible, but the police officers and police organizations that have spoken out and in no way agree with these injustices. I worked very closely with the police when I was a prosecutor in New York and after my best friend was murdered in front of my home. The police apprehended the perpetrators and held them accountable. For that I will always be eternally grateful for Detective Bond and the police team at the 88th Precinct in Brooklyn.
We now need to hold ourselves accountable. As the news cycles change we must never forget this time, what we are seeing now and the physical and mental devastation that will forever scar our community. We must be relentless in our pursuit of justice as we move forward to ensure that we don’t continue to repeat the same conversations. I pray and I hope that this time is different and that this can be the “Me Too” movement for racial justice.
Ramcess Jean-Louis is Global Head for Diversity & Inclusion of Verizon Media.
Cover thumbnail photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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