Speaking from the pulpit of his church in early April, Bishop William J. Barber II declared that “pandemics spread through the fissures of inequality.” The co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign was pointing to a reality that should be a central theme in the story of the COVID-19 crisis: the most vulnerable among us have been the most deeply impacted by a sickness that does not discriminate. The way in which coronavirus appears around the world, as a virus that can infect any human being – black, brown or white, rich or poor, religious or atheist, educated or illiterate – means that we must look to our own country’s “fissures” to understand why this pandemic has been so brutal to certain communities.
“Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching was straight out of Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955.”
Across the nation, it has been the black and brown, the working class and the poor, along with the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, who have been affected disproportionately. Persons of color and the poor have represented a disproportionate percentage of the “essential worker” class. That reality has exposed long-standing inequities in health care, access to healthy food and to parks and other green spaces and to other factors that have nurtured these imbalanced statistics. A straight line can be drawn from the existing inequities in American society and the inequitable way many people have experienced the crisis caused by COVID-19.
The response from government officials and elected leaders has been more lip service than meaningful action. There has been talk of “concern” with these coronavirus inequities, but aggressive and more radical maneuvers that could have actually made an impact in neutralizing these differences, such as a national rent freeze, closing meat-packing plants until major changes could be made to protect workers and providing stimulus checks to tax-paying immigrants regardless of their citizenship status, have been deferred or denied.
Instead, what we have seen in many cases is a doubling-down by those pulling the levers of power in order to exploit these pre-existing inequities, proving the argument I made in a previous commentary that sin has entered this crisis not through the virus itself but in our response to it.
Few scenes have been more exemplary of this than what happened in Wisconsin on April 7 as an in-person primary was held despite the objections of the governor and health officials. In cities like Milwaukee that have a disproportionate share of the state’s minorities, 90 percent of the polling places were shut down, which relegated voters to standing for hours in lines that stretched for blocks. We know now that at least 40 people were infected with COVID-19 based on their participation in that election. Every one of those individuals should sue the Republican legislators – corporately and individually – for their belligerent and callous negligence in forcing them to vote in-person.
Thankfully, justice prevailed, and the state Supreme Court judge who Republicans were trying desperately to protect (even if it required potentially sacrificing the lives of black and brown voters) was unseated anyway. But the battle lines were drawn, and if there was any lack of clarity around what will be at stake this November, that veil was lifted.
What will likely determine this year’s presidential election is whether or not eligible voters have access to mail-in ballots. These ballots must be accessible to all without the requirement of “excuse notes,” notary signatures or other barriers. Every eligible voter should be sent a ballot, as is already the practice in five states. Opponents of this reasonable, democratic process will rail about the potential for voter fraud and “ballot harvesting,” but that is just a ruse on the part of politicians who have so far demonstrated a demonic determination to maintain power at all costs, from voter suppression tactics to lonely deaths on ventilators.
We must defeat these efforts by any legal, legislative and nonviolent means at our disposal.
“A straight line can be drawn from the existing inequities in American society and the inequitable way many people have experienced the crisis caused by COVID-19.”
The consequences of national elections have been in sharp relief for nearly four years, and the events of recent days – specifically, the release last week of video showing the lynching-by-shotgun of Ahmaud Arbery for #runningwhileblack – have only served to emphasize that point (as if we needed any more reminders). One of the forgotten stories of the 2016 debacle is how the transition to the Trump administration signaled the violent interruption of the progress that was being made – ever so slightly and slowly – in combatting racist police violence. Not only did Trump and his political enablers halt the Obama administration’s progress in this and other areas of racial injustice, they did everything in their power to reverse those hard-won gains. Only the persistence of some state and local governments has salvaged remnants of these initiatives.
Arbery’s lynching in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, was straight out of Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. The white father and son, arrested more than 10 weeks later and only after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation from local authorities, literally treated Arbery like a runaway slave who they had been dispatched to capture or kill. At this point, it’s not even possible to say that the jury is out on whether or not Arbery will receive justice; the jury has yet to be empaneled even though this man was lynched two-and-a-half months ago thanks to the corruption of the local district attorney’s office that exploited restrictions in place because of the coronavirus.
Theodore Parker first said – and Martin Luther King Jr. made famous – that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The further insight in the decades since is that it is only through the courageous and relentless efforts of activists and organizers that the arc can actually bend. It is anything but automatic, and we must never assume it will simply happen. It requires vigilance and persistent prophetic witness in the public square. Ahmaud Arbery will receive justice only if we fight to make sure that justice is served.
The story of the coronavirus is that it ushered in a pandemic of injustice. From addressing the inequitable suffering of working-class people who are disproportionately black and brown, to holding officials accountable for racist election policies, to responding to outright modern-day lynching, we have a multi-front fight on our hands as we move towards the second half of this year and the most important election of our lifetime.
We’d better do like scripture says and “gird up our loins.” It’s going to get messy.