Sometimes it feels to me as if the spirit of the world has darkened, and sometimes it feels as if I am just more aware of the darkness that was here all along. In the past week, three stories have intersected to reinforce my perception of this darkness.
The United States of America has just reached 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. If we extrapolate this total over the whole year, this would mean 240,000 deaths, which would make COVID-19 the third-leading cause of death in our country, after heart disease and cancer but greater than accidents, other respiratory diseases, and all other causes. It is surprising that this disease, which none of us had heard of 6 months ago, which may have first appeared in humans less than a year ago, could now be the third-leading cause of death in this country. What is not surprising, if you know anything about health outcomes in this country, is that Black people are dying of COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of white people. In Chicago, Black residents are 30% of residents but 60% of deaths. These are the numbers.
But in another context, the reasoning that I have just laid out is misguided at best, abhorrent at worst. Each of those 100,000 people, each of those individuals, had a human life. In this context, it does not matter how many lives have been lost — what matters is each individual person, the impact on their family and friends. One such human life and death was that of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd died, not of COVID-19, but at the hands of Minneapolis police on Monday, May 25th. Regardless of what he was doing at the time, Mr. Floyd did not deserve to die. I have heard too many people blaming his death, just as they did with Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black men killed by police, on the victim.
And this blaming of the victim calls to mind Amy Cooper, a white woman out for a walk in New York City, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man who simply asked her to put her dog on its leash. After he made his request, she said she would call the police and tell them that “there’s an African American man threatening my life,” and then she did just that, raising her voice as she claimed that she felt unsafe. As many commentators have noted, including antiracism scholar Imbraim X. Kendi in a recent tweet, “We should be drawing a straight line of racist terror from #AmyCooper to this Minneapolis cop. Too often, she is the beginning. He is the end.”
There is also a line between the death of Mr. Floyd and the disproportionate deaths of Black people from COVID-19, which are caused by the generational wealth given to white people and taken from Black people during slavery, which has then compounded to imbalanced educational opportunities, imbalanced career choices, imbalanced incomes, and imbalanced healthcare options today.
In this moment of death, that of multitudes of people from COVID-19, that of George Floyd as an individual — among a long list of other individuals — and the potential death or damaging of Christian Cooper for making a simple request of a white woman, we look for solutions outside of ourselves. We may say, “Those things are horrible, but there’s nothing I can do about them.” We might think, “The politicians should take care of healthcare for people.” We might accuse, “Those police officers are racist thugs. They should be fired and prosecuted.” We might ask, “How could Amy Cooper do that?” But we would be missing the point. The point, for each of us…is ourselves.
It is easy to blame others. It is harder to look in the mirror. As coach and educator laura brewer emphasized in a recent podcast, we must first look inside ourselves. As a white man, when have I felt unsafe without reason? When have I looked suspiciously at a Black man because he wasn’t where I “expected” him to be? When have I taken advantage of the healthcare I receive as a right, without speaking up for those who do not share it? When have I turned away from the thousands upon thousands of Black men incarcerated for minor offenses in a prison system funded by my tax dollars?
In this time of death, we need multiple new ways of living — evolving the physical, mental, and emotional states of our selves, our families, and our extended communities. We must safeguard physical safety for ourselves, our families, and others by wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet of distance, even as we resume some of the activities we used to do. We must safeguard emotional health by continuing to connect remotely with family and friends and, when it makes sense and we can do so safely, seeing them in person with safety measures in place. Even in times of physical distancing, we must strengthen the bonds that hold us together.
We also must engage in constant and rigorous self-examination to see where we are perpetuating racist thoughts and beliefs. And when we recognize those racist thoughts in ourselves, even when we believe that they are only in our minds, we must interrogate where they came from, and how they in fact do influence our actions and relationships.
And we must hold our government to account, to remake it into an institution that protects physical, mental, and emotional health for all of our people and communities — Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, white, and all people. We must require that our government safeguard people’s right to live. We must require that our government clarify the necessity of wearing masks and distancing. We must require that our government provide ongoing living expenses for those households that can’t afford them because of this crisis.
All of these actions — to protect the health of our selves, our families, and our communities at all levels — must become our new way of living. Only then can we reduce the raw number of deaths and honor each of them individually. Maybe one day the scientists will find a vaccine, and maybe one day we will no longer need to protect our physical safety with masks and distancing. Maybe one day we can create a nation where unarmed Black men are not murdered by police. But the only way we can truly honor those who have died is if we find and maintain these new ways of living… ways that bring us together into new and invigorated communities that truly act to safeguard one another’s safety and health. We must continue to grow our mutual relationships and bonds — the ones that create connections across difference with family and friends, and the ones that require us to care across difference for those we have never met. This is the way we push back against the darkness. This is the way we truly honor each of those lives…from 100,000 to 1.
Please follow this blog by subscribing at the bottom of this page. And please follow me on Twitter and Instagram: