Oped: Systematic racism in the U.S. now shows us a tale of two pandemics

Posted: June 24, 2020

The below op-ed appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on June 19, 2020, and was written in-part by UK College of Nursing faculty member Lovoria Williams. 

Over recent months, two public health crises have converged that have placed a magnifying glass on the epidemic of racism against Black Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAtee, and Tony McDade have revealed to some and reminded many others of how systemic racism operates in this country. As these two public health crises converged, they prompted a tale of two contrasting types of protests.

On April 15, 2020, protesters gathered at Kentucky’s state Capitol building demanding that Governor Beshear re-open businesses closed due to COVID-19 public health concerns. Despite the protesters being armed with firearms and other weapons, law enforcement did little to control them. Even when an effigy of Governor Beshear was hung outside the Governor’s house, law enforcement did not respond with riot gear, tear gas, or rubber bullets. Similar protests occurred in Michigan and Florida with similarly minimal response from law enforcement.

The last few weeks have seen another type of national protest. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and countless other Black Americans caused many to make a difficult choice between risking COVID-19 exposure and speaking out against persistent racism at the hands of law enforcement and over 400 years of oppression. The response of law enforcement to Black Lives Matters protests was drastically different than during the COVID-19 protests, as officers frequently were outfitted with riot gear and, at times, used tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, and explosive devices.

These contrasting responses to protesters illustrate the embedded systemic nature of racism. Not only has the opposing response of law enforcement to the two protests revealed the deep roots of racism, but the divergent public health response to the two pandemics demonstrates how racism is foundational to the structure of American institutions and systems. The response to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has been swift, while the response to address police brutality and systemic racism is slow and many times non-existent.

Like the COVID-19 virus, all of us must come to understand white supremacy and racism as a preventable public health threat that undermines health equity. We view the present as an opportunity and recognize that people from all backgrounds have been moved to engage in anti-racist efforts. Many are increasingly recognizing that the elimination of racism requires a basic understanding of the United States historical foundation of “race” and the consequences of racism. As individuals newly committed to social justice support anti-racist initiatives, it is vitally important to listen rather than to be heard. While longtime advocates of eliminating racism have endured silence, rejection, violence, and death, there is a new opportunity to share power and space with those most impacted by racism, while also giving them space to grieve. Value their voices in policy conversations, community protests, economic solidarity efforts, workplace discussions, and interpersonal relationships. Yet we must also recognize that the power and influence to

dismantle systemic racism primarily remains in the hands of the perpetrators—white Americans. Thus to effect change, white Americans must use their privilege to act not just as allies, but as accomplices in dismantling systemic racism in this country.

The work of creating an anti-racist society is a marathon, not a sprint. While racist violence and health inequities are urgent public health issues, solutions require meaningful and tangible actions and strategies informed by voices, experiences, scholarship, activism, and leadership of those who experience racism and allies and accomplices committed to re-imagining a just society. True long-term commitment to anti-racism at every level of society and within every institution and system will have an unprecedented impact on the effort to ensure that everyone has a just and fair opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.

Ariel Arthur is the manager of the Center for Health Equity Transformation at the University of Kentucky. Carrie Oser, Ph.D. is associate chair of UK Sociology Department and associate director of the Center for Health Equity Transformation. Anita F. Fernander, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Behavioral Science in the UK College of Medicine. Nancy E. Schoenberg, Ph.D. is the Marion Pearsall Professor of Behavioral Science in the College of Medicine and Director of the Center for Health Equity Transformation. Lovoria B. Williams, PhD is an Associate Professor in the UK College of Nursing. Vivian Lasley-Bibbs is the Vice-Chair of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky Board of Directors.