Our statement on the current state of our world during the COVID-19 Pandemic:
We Can’t Breathe: Black Death, Racism, Structural Inequality,
and the American Viruses in Health and Higher Education at SU
The Democratizing Knowledge Collective, Syracuse University
Eventually doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but Black people
will continue to wait for a cure for racism. Roxane Gay, NYT, 5/30/20
COVID-19 has had a stark impact on the world and has abruptly changed life as we know it. The brunt of coping with COVID-19 is endured by the most politically disenfranchised, bearing the devastating health and financial fall-out from the disease and its complications, primarily Black and Brown people. While the world may be hoping for a vaccine for the Coronavirus, what seems to have been forgotten is that the structural and systemic racism that has been central to the rapid spread of the virus across these populations, is the same reason that these communities literally cannot breathe.
This article seeks to expose the role of the neoliberal state in US society that is fundamentally and historically structured around race and class marginalization. The article further underscores the myriad ramifications of this virus on these underserved communities and the ways this global pandemic has illuminated the institutionalized inequities in the United States, which has the highest incidents of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Specifically, we examine how the convergence of structural racism is evident in the disproportionate incidents of COVID-19 cases and the simultaneous over-criminalization of Black and Brown bodies in the justice system. We critique the repeated narrative of fundamental economic inequality expressed through the idea of heroism rather than admitting that low-wage essential workers are experiencing the greatest risk of exposure to the deadly virus. Finally, the paper is a call to action for all governmental bodies, including institutions of higher education, specifically Syracuse University, to work toward mitigating the suffocating COVID-19 impact on underserved students and surrounding community members.
The Unfolding Tragedy
On May 27, the United States registered a new nadir in the COVID-19 scourge when the number of deaths attributed to the virus topped 100,000. Having reached this grim milestone just four months since public officials formally acknowledged the existence of the virus in the United States, it would be easy to think that this public health crisis represents the greatest threat to the lives of Black and Brown people. This is particularly so as the disproportionate impact of the virus on the lives of Black and Latinx people in the U.S. is now starkly apparent (See discussion of Indigenous impact discussed later). Yet, it would be mistaken to view the devastation of COVID-19 as anything but another lethal manifestation of the structural inequities that threaten and actually take the lives of Black and Brown people in this country. Within days of reaching the dubious milestone of 100,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths, we have witnessed with anger and anguish the equally grim realities of racist police violence that kill and criminalize Black people. There seems to be a perverse commonality between the way that the COVID-19 virus attacks the victim’s lungs such that they eventually suffocate from its effects and the way that George Floyd, and unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, met his death when four police officers participated in suffocating him with a knee on his neck while he was handcuffed on the ground in their callous and cavalier exercise of White supremacy. The murder of George Floyd occurred within a spate of killings of Black people by state actors since the onset of the Coronavirus.
On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, was shot to death in her own home during a police drug raid in which the putative suspect was already in custody and was not even on the premises. The police fired over 20 rounds into the apartment, and struck Breonna over eight times. Although the police maintained that they had announced their presence before entering the apartment, Breonna’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker’s 911 phone call clearly reveals that they were unaware of the identities of the intruders and thought they were burglars. In that recording, Kenneth Walker frantically relates to the 911 dispatcher, “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” He continued to yell “Help!” and “Oh my God,” throughout the call. In another intersection between the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown people, many of whom are first responders, Breonna Taylor as an EMT, dreamt of becoming a nurse. Her family was concerned that she would contract the Coronavirus from her first responder duties, but the other American virus took her life – racist police violence.
The Black Trans population in this country also faces the reality of being dispensable. As recent as May 27, Tony McDade, a Black transgender man was shot and killed by a member of the Tallahassee police department. The police alleged that McDade had a gun; however, as MotherJones reported, a witness who came forward disputes the official narrative that the officer provided (https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2020/05/tony-mcdade-tallahassee-florida-police-shooting-death/. See also, https://www.wtxl.com/news/local-news/city-of-tallahassee-to-release-public-records-in-tony-mcdade-shooting; and https://www.rochesterfirst.com/news/local-news/local-black-trans-community-calls-for-more-inclusion-in-blm-protests/). Of all transgender and non-binary people killed just last year, 96% of them were Black women
In February 2020, the same month when COVID-19 was publicly acknowledged, three White men in Central Georgia deigned to exercise their power to make what they called a “citizen’s arrest” against Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was jogging in the neighborhood. Gregory Michael and his son Travis claimed that Arbery “looked like a burglary suspect,” and pursued him in their truck. William Bryan, a neighbor of the McMichaels, joined the McMichaels in their chase. As Arbery continued jogging, the McMichaels and Bryan blocked him with their vehicles. The men confronted Arbery and Travis shot Arbery after claiming that he had violently attacked him. The father and son were charged with murder and aggravated assault on May 9 – two months after Arbery’s death. Gregory McMichael was charged with murder and aggravated assault, and Travis McMichael was charged with complicity to murder and aggravated assault. William Bryan, who filmed the killing, was subsequently charged with felony murder and attempted false imprisonment for his role in the death of Arbery.
Clearly, the exercise of White supremacy to kill or criminalize Black people does not require a badge. It only requires the imprimatur of Whiteness to make a calculated racist threat that invokes the trope of White female fear of the violent Black male. Christian Cooper, an African American birder in Central Park, NY, discovered this on May 25th, when he asked Amy Cooper (no relation) to leash her dog as the law required. Instead of complying, Amy Cooper decided to exercise her power as a White woman and levied potentially lethal harm against Christian Cooper when she followed through on her threat to call the police and tell them that a “Black man” was threatening her life. The link between the two events, Amy Cooper calling the cops and George Floyd’s lynching by cops illustrates the White impunity that undergirds the exercise of systemic racism and white supremacy.
The convergence of structural racism that is evident in the disproportionate incidence of COVID-19 cases and the simultaneous over-criminalization of Black and Brown people also is reflected in the arrests for violations of social distancing in New York. As reported in the NYT, between mid-March and early May, of the 125 people arrested for violations of social-distancing rules and regulations related to COVID-19, 113 were Black or Latinx. Christian Cooper spoke about the larger implications of these racialized phenomena on ABC’s The View with regard to his encounter with Amy Cooper. Cooper stated, “I think she [has to] do some reflection on what happened because up until that moment when she made that statement, it was just a conflict between a birder and a dog walker, and then she took it to a very dark place.” Cooper added, “It’s not really about her. It’s about the underlying current of racism and racial perceptions.” Indeed, something much deeper is at issue and at stake. Given the mounting disparities of COVID-19 deaths and the unrelenting incidence of murders of Black people at the hands of state and civilian actors, one must conclude that the most deadly American virus is racism, in all of its manifestations.
Global Pandemics and Discriminatory Impacts
To be sure, COVID-19 has wrought widespread challenges and misery to large numbers of people across the globe and the United States. The gendered impact of the pandemic has been documented by numerous feminist national and international organizations. Globally, women make up 70% of all health and social services workers (the so-called front-line workers)—in the U.S. it is Black and Brown women who are at risk. The rise of domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence during such crises, as well as the economic precarity women experience with the loss of jobs, not to mention their increased role in the care economy poses urgent challenges in terms of gender and racial equity. See https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/what-the-covid-19-pandemic-tells-us-about-gender-equality/. The harsh realities of the pandemic are exposing vulnerabilities of the United States populace due to failures of government, most egregiously on the federal level, and the deliberate lack of a social safety net for most Americans. The resurgence of food banks, unprecedented levels of unemployment, small business closures, and increased homelessness speak to the dire straits of a cross section of the country who have been upended by the effects of the virus and the largely inadequate governmental responses to it. The societal vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by the virus also reveal physical and psychic dangers including higher incidence of gender-based violence and child abuse. Further, the number of deaths in the United States is well on its way to exceed 200,000. More frighteningly, the number of people infected by COVID-19 in the U.S. is estimated at over 1.6 million, even as official tallies of the pandemic are widely known to be under-reported. The CDC and Johns Hopkins University along with most health experts believe that the death toll and infection rates are between 3-4 times higher than officially reported. This is because, despite having the highest infection rates and in the world, the U.S. was the slowest nation to provide universal testing in order to accurately determine those who are affected.
Yet, the broad impact of COVID-19 belies the reality that this indiscriminate virus indeed has discriminatory impact. Even as more details emerge about the virus itself – from its earlier than reported onset date to the ways in which it affects the bodies and immune systems of its victims – one thing is patently clear: by virtually every measure, Black and Brown people in the United States have contracted and have died from the CORONA-19 virus far out of proportion to their numbers in the country and in individual states. This is true even in cities and states where the Black and Brown population is miniscule, and whether in densely or sparsely populated areas. This disparity is most pronounced for Blacks. While Blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 25 percent of COVID-19 deaths. As the APM Research Lab reports, “The overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Blacks is 2.4 times as high as for Whites. Dramatic mortality disparities also exist for Indigenous peoples in several states. In Arizona and New Mexico, where major populations of the Navajo Nation reside, the mortality rate is 8 times as high as the White mortality rate (New Mexico), and more than 5 times as high as for all other groups (Arizona). New Mexico and Arizona alone account for more than two-thirds of the known Indigenous deaths.” (https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.)
As stark as these figures are, the unequal racial devastation revealed by the COVID-19 is not a story of numbers. As has been discussed by several research and media sources, data on COVID-19 deaths across race, ethnicity and gender is highly inadequate and has major holes. For example, there are huge gaps in the data on deaths among undocumented immigrants across racial and ethnic groups. Further, while data on race and homelessness continue to demonstrate an over representation of Black communities, this remains to be accounted for in much of the currently available analyses of Covid-19 deaths. See, for example, APM and NPR data (https://covidtracking.com/race).
Yet this continuing narrative of fundamental inequality is once again couched in the language of heroism rather than discrimination. In this way, members of society who are deemed to be first responders and essential workers are touted for their selflessness, rather than recognized for their endangered status as workers who risk their lives without proper assistance, equipment, or social benefits for themselves and their families. These workers indisputably deserve every accolade and expression of gratitude for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make to ensure that others survive the ravages of this pandemic. However, lauding the workers as heroes deflects attention to the extant structural inequalities that have placed many of the same workers in positions that are needlessly vulnerable and unequal. This means that the brunt of coping with COVID-19 is borne by many who are least equipped to bear the devastating health and financial fall-out from the disease and its complications. What is evident is that a disproportionate number of Black and Brown workers are represented in the fields of essential workers.
Essential Work and Economic Divides
Essential workers include, of course, doctors, nurses, EMTs and other medical professionals and personnel. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Black workers comprise 17.5 percent of workers in the health care system, compared with roughly one in eight White workers. Essential workers also include bus drivers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, mail and package deliverers, meatpackers, janitorial workers, and other service providers. Moreover, Black and Brown workers, especially women, are disproportionately represented in low-wage service industries which place them at greater risk for contracting the virus. Undocumented people, both brown and Afrodescendants, are among “essential workers” but, at the same time, they have been excluded from receiving any benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (health care or financial assistance). No one should question the dedication of workers who genuinely decide to prioritize others’ well-being based on their training, altruism, or in some cases, oaths that they take. Likewise, no one should question the human value of workers who are forced into Hobbesian choices to risk their lives and livelihoods in order to provide financially for themselves and their families. To lavish praise upon these workers as “heroes,” without providing them the basic equipment to do their jobs safely or equitably, rings cynical at best and discriminatory at worst. In every instance, these workers – Black and Brown, women, citizens, immigrants, undocumented migrants, paid, unpaid, visible and invisible – they have a fundamental right to this. They deserve better treatment and working conditions, and more benefits and compensation. It is a scourge that any frontline workers do not have basic benefits such as healthcare, which they often cannot afford, even as they take care of seriously and gravely ill people. They deserve better protective equipment and should not have to resort to makeshift PPE and other protective garb. It is a national disgrace that medical workers should have to repeatedly plead with the national and state-level governments to get what they need to protect themselves and their families from further risk as they spend inordinate time and energy keeping others alive. These workers are heroes. But the best tribute to them would be to end the longstanding history of structural inequality that undervalues their lives and work.
Immediate edicts to “shelter in place” further revealed the social divide between many front line and essential workers on one hand, and those who had the economic resources and living space to work from home indefinitely on the other hand. Parents and students at every educational level, from pre-K to graduate school, were suddenly thrust into circumstances where work-school-family life took place in single locations. The digital divide, the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who do not, has perpetuated pre-existing barriers and overall structural inequality facing already underserved social groups. For historically underserved populations digital disparities begin prior to entering K-12 education and they have direct impact on students’ overall educational path, including access to and completion of a college education, and their preparation for a fulfilling 21st century life (See Buzzetto-Hollywood, N., Wang, H., Elobeid, M., & Elobeid, M. (2018). Addressing information literacy and the digital divide in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of e-Skills and Lifelong Learning, 14, 77-93. https://doi.org/10.28945/4029; and Moore, R.; Vitale, D.; & Stawinoga, N. (2018). The Digital Divide and Educational Equity: A Look at Students with Very Limited Access to Electronic Devices at Home. Insights in Education and Work. Iowa City, IA: ACT.)
Broadly speaking, 85% of Asian American homes have the highest access to Internet service, while African American, Latinx, Native American, and Alaska Native homes show the lowest access (Dolan, 2016). One study showed that populations who were characterized by low- income levels, first-generation status, and racial minority backgrounds, had a greater likelihood of very limited access internet services and online devices at home. These students often work on smartphones operating on an already stressed family-data plan, which resulted in compounded difficulties such as lack of a learning space and uninterrupted work time. Together, these barriers widen the “homework gap” and this deficiency follows them as “legacy” from high-school into college (Moore et al 2018). Another study focusing specifically on minority-serving institutions surveyed the information and technology readiness of first-year and incoming students. It shows that students’ self-perception, with respect to digital skills literacy, is as important as access to technology (Buzzeto-Hollywood et al 2018). The unfavorable circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic target student populations underserved based on race, low-income, gender, and first-generation status, and worsen the ongoing effects of structural inequalities in their information and technology readiness. In Spring 2020, as Syracuse University transitioned to online instruction in the wake of the pandemic, we witnessed all of these above-mentioned disparities among students enrolled in our own classes. Based on our own experience this past semester, the inequities demonstrated by the above data in the national scenario regarding access to online classes, space, and more, appeared across the experiences of minoritized students at SU as well.
Call to Action: The State and Syracuse University in the Crosshairs
These issues are directly related to Syracuse University because in this era of neoliberal capitalism in America where entrepreneurship, profit and wealth are the celebratory markers of success, we see neoliberal policies in health care, in public health specifically, in education, in child and family services, in environmental justice, in economic inequality, and food insecurity. Congress awarded nearly $15 million in emergency financial assistance to college students whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding was made available through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which was authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Syracuse University will receive a portion of this funding to be used for the benefit of students. In addition, Syracuse University will receive $9,920,122 outright, as a second part of this award. Since the Congressional intent is that these funds be used for students’ benefit, colleges and universities, including SU, must be transparent and detailed about specifically how the funds are spent beyond reimbursement for spring semester board and lodging. The Chancellor has pledged that senior administrators including coaches will take a 10% salary cut in light of the pandemic and the economic hardships that others across the campus are facing. It would seem fairer to have a graduated schedule, for example: 25% compensation cut for administrators earning over $750,000; 20% for those earning over $500,000, and a 15% cut for those earning $350,000. It should be further clear whether the emergency funds from Congress will be used in any way to supplement top administrators’ remuneration. Adopting such a salary reduction schedule and transparent accounting of award expenditures can avoid any employee furloughs that the University may be contemplating.
The University is as removed from the crisis of poverty that surrounds it as the president of the United States is from the near collapse of the nation that his neoliberal policies supporting corporate greed, institutional racism, and private wealth accumulation have wrought in the last four years.
As a university-based collective that dwells in the borderlands of community-academic collaborations, of knowledges that disrupt privatized power and property rights, DK calls on Syracuse University to remember its intimate dependence on the city it inhabits. Following the demands of student movements on SU’s own campus, including the most recent Black student-led #NotAgainSU protests, we reiterate the need to disarm, restructure and reduce funding to our campus’ Department of Public Safety (DPS), on account of the clear links and overlaps between the actions of DPS at SU, the Syracuse Police Department and police brutality across the United States.
As the global Coronavirus pandemic destroys the violent illusions of border control – militarized walls, Muslim travel bans, resident ‘aliens’ – our local entanglements are also revealed. The city of Syracuse is immersed in the economic and social fallout of the pandemic: increased impoverishment, hunger, and precariousness distributed unevenly among communities of color, and immigrant and low-income communities. Like many universities that reside in struggling, deindustrialized mid-size U.S. cities, Syracuse University prefers to burnish its brand as an international bastion of elite academic excellence. Dwelling in one of the 10 worst cities for Blacks to reside, with the highest rate of racialized poverty in the nation, where almost 20% of children experience food insecurity, Syracuse University lives at ground zero of an urgent, proximate crisis. And this was before the pandemic. Racial injustice and the everyday economic violence of hunger, job loss, and health distress are intensifying during the pandemic. Universities are called upon, urgently, to democratize the production of knowledge and wealth in service to the communities among which they live, in solidarity with the fact we live entwined with our neighbors with whom we share a city, public space, and breath.
COVID-19, which has exacerbated the structural inequalities and racial injustices in the U.S., are fundamentally about breath. Free, fair, unconstricted, healthy, life force sustaining breath. We are ethically obligated to recognize our individual and institutional locations within the constructs of societal inequity and we must work to eradicate the distances that such disparities and injustices foment. As the protests locally by Black Lives Matter Syracuse New York and #NotAgainSU, and the fevered uprisings in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, and across the country in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery demonstrate, continued entrenched inequality will no longer be tolerated and will continue to come at a cost. We can choose breath, instead.
The Democratizing Knowledge Collective, Syracuse University, is a cross-school faculty-graduate student-based group who share a commitment to build decolonizing knowledges that take power and (in)justice as central to the intellectual project of higher education. All view the end goal of this work as radical institutional and societal transformation.
Current members are:
- Himika Bhattacharya
- Linda Carty
- Pedro DiPietro
- Dellareese Jackson- Cofield
- Paula Johnson
- Jackie Orr
- Chandra Talpade Mohanty