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At the Intersection of Racism and COVID

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So much has happened in the past six months, so much has changed and keeps on changing, there is so much uncertainty and unpredictability, that it’s difficult to focus on the things that are truly important. Before anyone on this planet knew about COVID-19, before it had even received a name, the Diocese of New York was working on reparations and racial reconciliation. We were already working on plans for a diocese-wide book reading of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. We were already making plans for the diocese to engage in a service of Apology as part of Convention 2020. We were already working to expand antiracism training and educate ourselves and each other about the evils of systemic racism and white supremacy.

In fact, before COVID came into being, we already knew that there were huge disparities in healthcare between people of color and white people. We already knew there were giant differences in education and economic opportunities. We knew that Black people and Latinx people were the victims of gun violence at a rate far above that of White people. We could see—if we cared to look—that there were far more Black and Latinx people in our prisons than White people. We were even beginning to understand that climate change was impacting people of color more than it was impacting White people because of a matrix of factors: historic as well as current.

In January 2020, when the World Health Organization first announced that there was a mysterious new virus that appeared to be causing an outbreak of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, China, I heard it as just another news story. Then some cases were reported in Thailand and Japan, then Seattle, Washington, then New Rochelle, and almost suddenly, New York. The state—but also prominently New York City—had become the worldwide epicenter of the disease. People were sent home to work and to be educated. Handwashing, mask-wearing, physical distancing, and staying at home (if you could) were the orders of the day. In the Diocese of New York, we stopped assembling for public worship to do our part in flattening the curve. During the most brutal days of the COVID crisis, we fell back on, if not understood, that We are all in this together. COVID affects everyone. Do your part to help flatten the curve.

As time passed and the statistics accumulated, it began to come into focus that COVID was killing more people of color than White people; more poor people than rich people; more old people than young people. Some people took these statistics to mean that if you were young, White, and could afford good healthcare, you didn’t have to worry as much about COVID as others did, who clearly had underlying health concerns. I stop here. Because the single point I want to make is this: Just as the existence of COVID in this world affects everybody, even if you never contract the disease, the evils of racism affect everyone. I probably should say, “the evils of racism infect everybody.” There is no vaccination against racism. What the common good means is either that we will all get well together, or we will all continue to suffer together.

The best I can say about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is a worldwide wake-up call for humanity to attend to the life-threatening injustices that truly threaten to annihilate all of us—because the truth is, they infect every one of us. Ibram X. Kendi, himself a cancer survivor, puts it this way: “But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.” [i]

[i]   Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, New York: One World, 2019, p.238