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Seeking justice while staying safe during COVID-19

Confronting two pandemics

Sunita Sohrabji California Black media | 6/26/2020, midnight

Americans are facing a critical inflection point as the nation grapples with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice.

COVID-19 has killed more than 445,000 people worldwide, more than 118,000 of them in the United States. In the midst of that pandemic, White Americans — angered by the brutal killing of Minnesota resident George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin — are waking up to the challenges Black Americans face daily.

Experts at a June 19 panel organized by Ethnic Media Services detailed those challenges: Police brutality and overly-zealous policing, economic injustice, disparities in access to health care, higher levels of incarceration resulting in greater rates of recidivism, and a pervasive culture of casual racism.

COVID-19 has revealed the failures of a public health system based on the needs of White people, said Dr. Tung Nguyen, a professor of internal medicine at the UC San Francisco. The United States has the most expensive health care system in the world, but its outcomes are poor because it is focused on the wrong things, he said.

“The factors that contribute the most are low life expectancy or income quality, low levels of education and exposure to violence along with other key determinants, like jobs, housing and food insecurity and climate change. These are the proper topics for public health and for health care to work on in the future,” said Nguyen, who also directs the Asian American Research Center on Health.

“The state of race relations today in the United States is in a place I’ve never seen it,” said Constance “Connie” Rice, long-time civil rights activist and lawyer and co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles.

“This isn’t about people of color. This is the fourth major national discussion that White Americans have been having about how much racism they’re currently comfortable tolerating, how much White supremacy White Americans are going to condone and continue,” Rice said.

“For the first time, the majority of White people in America are saying, ‘Okay, we have to make a choice. We didn’t know we were part of the choice. We didn’t know we were in this conversation.’ It’s like watching whales discover they live in water, but now they’re starting to get consciousness. We’ll see where it goes.”

Rice said the young marchers around the globe have had an enormous effect on that consciousness.

“This is tectonic plate-level change, it’s seismic. And we don’t know what the politics are gonna ring on it,” she added. “We will see in November, whether they [White Americans] are going to go the white nationalist way or with the future, which is a multiracial democracy.”

The roots of American policing, she said, are ensconced in “slave patrols” meant to keep people “in place,” a mindset that is a “warrior mentality. It’s not about a bad apple. It’s about a toxic orchard and the entire culture.”

Manuel Pastor, professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, said overly-zealous policing of African-Americans was the tip of the iceberg in a culture that has consistently marginalized ethnic communities.