By Derric J. Johnson, Founding Director of the Crossroads School Equity & Justice Institute
This is our “what-did-you-do-during-the-war” moment.
The coronavirus death toll has currently exceeded 58,000 neighbors, friends and family members and more than 1 million confirmed cases in the United States. The daily news cycle is sobering: grim updates to these statistics; reports of hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander communities scapegoated for the health crisis; protests to lift quarantine restrictions based on an alleged violation of civil liberties; assessments of the infrastructure capacity to conduct mass testing; and strategies for staggered approaches to reopen parks, schools and economies as soon as possible. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, however, life is still a long way from returning to pre-pandemic norms. In the interim, I’ve been processing many questions: what does a normalized subsistence really mean in America, to which communities does it apply and who is defining that narrative?
Recently, I read an essay entitled “What is the Corona/Covid-19 Virus Really Teaching Us?
” that went viral. The article was written anonymously but initially attributed to Bill Gates. I strongly agree with much of the sentiment and outlook expressed in the essay, including the belief in “a spiritual purpose behind everything that happens.” I took a sharp left, however, on the assertion that this pandemic is a reminder “that we are all equal, regardless of our culture, religion, occupation, financial situation or how famous we are. This disease treats us all equally.”
Though I understand the broader argument of a virus not being discriminatory, there are other social health determinants that influence who is more or less likely to be afflicted. This includes everything from preexisting physical and mental ailments to economic and housing instability. Another indicator is geography: What are the risk factors in your built environment? Do you live in a “health care desert”? Do the politicians who represent you adhere to evidenced-based public health approaches? The impact of this pandemic is not equal because equity never existed prior to it.
Income and educational attainment are two commonly used markers of socioeconomic status or position in the United States. Both are strongly linked to most measures of health and health-related behaviors across life’s course. A person’s earnings and schooling, along with other correlated characteristics including lineage, social networks and neighborhood socioeconomic conditions can influence health in myriad ways. These include the direct and obvious effects of extreme poverty (e.g., malnourishment or exposure to extreme heat/cold) to the less obvious health effects of toxic stress due to negative environmental dynamics (e.g., systemic racism, blight and/or adverse childhood experiences). All of these factors link and compound over time, equating to a constant struggle in meeting life’s needs without adequate resources.
We are currently seeing evidence of this inequity play out in real time. There are many among us—such as the millions of newly unemployed Americans—who need support now in ways that were unimaginable just two months ago. There are also millions of people who struggled to navigate with daily life way before we ever heard of COVID-19. While some of us are simply learning a lot about what's necessary to conduct video chats, others are faced with the reality that lack of access to technology and/or a broadband network is just one of many obstacles to maneuver (and, in truth, probably much further down on the list of challenges to address).
However glossed-over, the disparities between those with resources or access to them and those without have always been a reality. It's no major surprise then that a worldwide pandemic would escalate and lay bare the harsh truths of our varying circumstances. As of April 23, 2020, more than 26 million Americans have filed for some form of economic relief or unemployment benefits. According to the Los Angeles Times, less than half of Los Angeles County residents—only 45%—still hold a job. This happened merely a month after we started our national “shelter-in-place” protocols. The data reveals that a large portion of our society was already on the precipice of hardship: barely hanging on, as it were. Statistically, in many of our national urban metropolises and rural territories, black, brown and Native American communities are bearing the worst brunt of this epidemic. This is evident both in terms of poor health outcomes (confirmed coronavirus cases and higher mortality rates) and further exacerbating economic difficulties.
Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy
projects that poverty in the United States could reach its highest levels in over 50 years (since at least 1967). They forecast that if unemployment rates rise to 30%, this will represent an increase of more than 21 million individuals in poverty.
They report that even with a quick recovery in employment rates after this summer, the annual poverty rate will still reach levels comparable to the Great Recession (2007-09).
I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” Perspective is essential for assessing realities and plotting next steps. Today, my gaze is looking back from the future. I’m realizing that we will never be the same. We’re not supposed to be. History has never been linear. Surveying the current landscape, I’m trying to maintain optimism that the world is finally ready for a major change. It’s beyond time to dismantle systems that are conceived and structured to benefit those who already have means. This should include colleges and universities eliminating the use of the SAT and other standardized tests required for college entry; government divestment from juvenile justice institutions designed to confine our children; and ending systemic forms of racism, both complicit and implicit. This is the perfect occasion to assess, reinvent and discard what no longer serves all of us.
I’ve grown weary from lamenting freedoms lost and liberties threatened and from consistently advocating for populations adversely impacted. Most days I feel like I’m on a desolate island screaming out into open water, constantly questioning whether those in positions of authority will ever admit their advantage and address the collateral consequences of colonial rule, white supremacy and patriarchy. Apathy and pessimism are the destroyers of spirit. However, I’m keeping faith that those who benefit from inequity can ultimately recognize that what they call “freedom” is actually privilege. Privilege, by definition, is a special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others. Privilege allows for choice, while poverty eliminates options. Privilege is the ability to influence systemic decisions. And privilege is both a legacy of conscious acts, leading to historic inequities, and a primary cause of bigotry. This pandemic holds up a mirror for the conscious to reflect on our humanity. The foundation for the work ahead centers on no longer living entitled, but instead to exist in a space filled with gratitude and in service of others.
“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is the moment; the time is always now.”—James Baldwin