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What was immediately revealed in the early days of the quarantine—now some five weeks old in the U.S., give or take—is that many of the things we believed were impossible were not. They were choices.
Until the coronavirus pandemic, most courts sided with employers, finding that “teleworking from home” was not a reasonable accommodation for professionals with disabilities. If you’re currently suffering from “resting Zoom face” from the crush of video meetings you’ve been having, you now know that was not true. Jails and prisons are filled with people who were deemed too dangerous to be released—the elderly and frail, the non-violent, low-level offenders, the innocent too poor to afford bail to be proven innocent. That also turned out not to be true, even if limited release programs are turning out to be too little, too late.
What has also been revealed, and predictably so, amounts to a collective lesson on systemic inequality. Lesson number one: The human cost of inequality is also a choice.
The people who are dying from COVID-19 are largely Black and Hispanic, the very people who were unable to work from home as they continued to provide “essential” services in retail, health care, social service, farm work, mail delivery, transit, and sanitation work—the frontline workers who are making it possible for the rest of us to stay home and meet quarterly goals in our leisure wear.
“Grocery workers are risking their safety, often for poverty-level wages, so the rest of us can shelter in place,” John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University tells the Washington Post. Over 40 people have died, and more are testing positive. But grocery frontliners are a proxy for a whole lot of workers who are treated by society as if they’re disposable, not indispensable.
It’s time to question every assumption we have about how the world works, and the ecosystem of inequity that has kept our suddenly essential workers trapped where they’ve always been—needed but never seen, vital but never cherished.
Let’s start by getting the data we need.
Dr. Aletha Maybank is the first-ever chief health equity officer at the American Medical Association. Before the pandemic hit, she had been ramping up to shine a light on how and why unequal health outcomes happen in the U.S. Now, she is urgently calling on all laboratories, health institutions, and state, local, and federal health agencies to standardize, collect, and publish race and ethnicity data that relates to the coronavirus epidemic, from testing to morbidity.
She is also on a mission to stop any chatter that some people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 disease because of pre-existing conditions. Racism is the pre-existing condition. From a recent opinion piece in the New York Times:
“Our call for the reporting of racial and ethnic data is not based on a poisonous argument that some races are more susceptible to the coronavirus. Our call, instead, is based on widely known history that American health institutions were designed to discriminate against blacks, whether poor or not. My own organization, for example, made it harder for Blacks to obtain a medical degree and practice medicine, with negative repercussions still evident to this day.”
Into this unforgiveable breach comes a new project from The Atlantic, in partnership with the Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
The COVID Racial Data Tracking Project has cobbled together imperfect data from 29 states to begin confirming the extent of the racial disparities. Their ongoing analysis paints a grim picture: In New York City, Latinx account for 34% of known coronavirus deaths, which is higher than their 29.1% share of the city’s population. Available data finds that some 42% of that nation’s deaths by April 8 were Black.
It’s going to get worse. So, it’s time to choose.
“Today, the racial disparities are undeniable. But Americans don’t know for sure that there is racism behind those racial disparities,” says ARPC director and Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi, who co-leads the COVID Tracking Project with staff writer Alexis Madrigal. “So yet again, our voices are crying out in the wilderness for a miracle to save America from its original sin—the sin Americans can’t ever seem to confess.”
The Queens of Hollywood It’s been a long road for strong Black, female leads in the entertainment industry, and one filled with roadblocks set up by “white men holding the reins of power, making progress, inclusion, and diversity at best a seasonal proposition,” says entertainment writer Brian Keith Jackson. And yet it is the veterans—Angela Bassett, Lynn Whitfield, Mary J. Blige, Halle Berry, and Viola Davis among them—who held on throughout the fallow ‘90s, to hold doors open for up-and-comers who can now be found behind the camera as well. “Their persistence has rippled outward, altering the entire industry, forcing a conversation about power in Hollywood,” says Jackson. And, they’re gorgeous.
NASCAR driver suspended after being caught using the n-word on an open comms channel Ever wonder what the cockpit chitchat between your favorite NASCAR drivers and their pals is like? Well, if you’re a fan of Kyle Larson, now you sort of know! Chip Ganassi Racing has suspended professional driver Larson after he used then n-word in what he believed was a private chat during a virtual iRacing event held on NASCAR’s website on Sunday. As fans reacted in real-time, so did Larson: He was informed shortly after he used the slur that he’d been speaking on a public channel. NASCAR suspended him per review on Monday, then fired him today.
Caren Ulrich Stacy to the legal community: Double down on diversity now The CEO of Diversity Lab and raceAhead treasure has been studying and attempting to address the lack of diversity in law firms and corporate departments for years. She now shares an urgent lesson from the past. Economic upheaval is bad for diversity. “Data shows that the last recession dramatically unraveled years of progress,” she tells Law.com. Steady gains in gender and racial representation came to an abrupt halt when the 2008 recession hit. “[Then], diversity numbers dipped for the first time in 20 years. In fact, the African American associate population in law firms didn’t rebound to prerecession numbers until last year.” A must read and share.
Coronavirus in the community
- “This has gone from a grocery store to a food pantry. That’s how I’m feeling.”
- How to save Black and Hispanic lives right now.
- The Trump Administration has not released data about racial and ethnic COVID-19 outcomes. Here is a way they could.
- What do the countries with the most effective coronavirus responses have in common?
- Leilani Jordan was 27 years old and a dedicated grocery clerk. She also had cerebral palsy. She died of COVID-19 in March. Her last paycheck was for $20.64.
- People with disabilities often work in retail or service jobs. Here’s why employers can get away with paying them so little.
Wuhan is my home Laura Gao is a comic artist by night—who’s available for commissions!—and a Twitter employee by day. But she’s also from Wuhan, China, where the majority of her family still live. “Wuhan virus, Chinese virus, COVID-19. My hometown will forever be known for that, and only that,” she says in this poignant animated short film. Few Westerners had heard of Wuhan, known as the “Chicago of China,” for its central location as a trading hub. Now, it brings looks of disgust. “I want to steer away from politics for a bit to shine a light on the beauty of my Wuhanese people and their rich culture and history.” This animated short does just that. Enjoy.
Go postal, stay postal The purpose of a federal postal system is to deliver democracy, argues journalism professor Michael I. Niman in this look back from 2012. At the time, USPS was once again in jeopardy, pushed to the brink of solvency by byzantine obligations, privatization ambitions, and a Congress unwilling to fund it. “The Postal Service is not a mere delivery service, an outdated, inefficient alternative to FedEx or UPS. It’s a public service that every nation on earth, except for Somalia, maintains,” he writes. If we lose it, we lose ourselves, he says. Find more history in Professor Philip F. Rubio’s book Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service. If you want to be a great patriot, order it (and your paper Fortune subscription!) and have it delivered by mail.
Hazte a un lado, Matt Damon While the 2011 film Contagion has correctly being lauded as a realistic depiction of a deadly and fast-moving pandemic, it’s a 1979 Mexican feature film that hits closest to home, says reviewer Manuel Betancourt. While Felipe Cazals’ El año de la peste (The Year of the Plague), is not an escapist romp, it does remind us that nothing we’re seeing is new. "[The film] feels eerily timely because it focuses more on the failures of a bureaucracy that would rather drown out facts with screams of ‘fake news!’ than to fight for disenfranchised communities most affected by a mysterious bronchial disease,” he writes. Best tidbit of all: The film was co-written by journalist, novelist Gabriel García Márquez, author of Love in the Time of Cholera.
Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.
A new section dedicated to big news from the raceAhead community.
Dr. Clint Smith, poet, author, essayist, and raceAhead family member successfully defended his dissertation yesterday in a socially distant but surprisingly moving way.
“[I] got to share the moment w/ friends & family from every part of my life,” he tweeted. "It wasn’t what I had imagined, it was so much better [than] anything that I could have ever imagined.” Smith earned his Education, Culture, Institution, and Society Ph.D. from Harvard, and his dissertation was entitled “'What If They Open That Door One Day?': What Education Means to People Sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole.“
"I explored how people sentenced to life without parole as children make meaning of the purpose of education before, during, and after their period of incarceration,” Smith tells raceAhead by email. “Put differently, when you are told you are going to spend the rest of your life in a cage, what motivates someone to learn—and how is that learning shaped by one’s experience prior to being incarcerated, and how does it shape how they think about education after they have been released.” Smith has a new book coming out next year.