atlantaIn the third of a series of focus groups sponsored by the Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities Project, Atlanta area residents gathered virtually to discuss issues of government, media, rights, and trust in the U.S. 

Some two-dozen Atlanta area residents of all ages and races gathered together for a virtual “town hall” on April 15, sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In a wide-ranging discussion, participants were critical of both government and media, and divided in their beliefs about essential rights, but united in trusting their fellow citizens to come together to overcome adversity. 

The panel was the third in a series of focus groups sponsored by the Carr Center on the topic of “Renewing Rights and Responsibilities in the United States.” The first two panels, in Phoenix, Arizona and Detroit, Michigan were conducted in person on March 3 and 4. These guided conversations about American rights presented unique opportunities to hear unfiltered opinions of Americans in a time of crisis.  This summer the Carr Center in cooperation with the Kennedy School Institute of Politics will sponsor a nationwide poll, based on the results of the three focus groups, as part of a report and recommendations to the next administration on renewing rights in the U.S.

The coronavirus was heavy on the minds of participants, about half of whom said they’d been economically impacted by the pandemic. Many reported added stress from the pressures of working from home and juggling childcare and homeschooling, or worries about those isolating in unsafe conditions. “One of the things I am concerned about is kids are isolated like this,” said a middle-school teacher. “Believe it or not, for quite a few students school is a place where they can find safety.”

Many participants criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic. “We were just slow and naïve about it, especially with our current leadership,” said one. “It seems like they did not do a good job taking it seriously, and now we are playing catch-up.” A software engineer agreed. “They kept downplaying it, like it’s no big deal,” he said. “And there are thousands and thousands of people that are dying,” Some participants criticized President Trump for the crisis. “This is one of the worst positions we’ve been in in a while, and in my opinion, he is part of the problem,” said a master’s student in human resources in Atlanta.

“I truly believe that as Americans, no matter what we are faced with, we will be able to get through this."

Several participants also expressed deep disappointment with the media, though they differed over which media were to blame and their reasons for dissatisfaction. A healthcare worker criticized some media for downplaying the truth of the crisis. “I feel like the media, as well as the government, is only telling us part of the story around COVID-19 than what a lot of us on the front lines are getting.” On the other hand, an oil and gas worker criticized other media for sensationalism. “Every dang headline is trying to tear somebody down or trying to point a finger and to spark more fear because fear drives ratings, and it’s just all driving me nuts,” he said. “I’m sitting here watching our economy crumble and people willingly giving up their freedoms, and the media is a willing player.” 

Lack of truth in the popular media was a recurrent refrain from participants. “I’m amazed at how much BS is in the news, and why can’t we just get to the truth,” said the software engineer. At least one participant laid the blame for that at the feet of the president. “When Trump says ‘fake news’ that’s basically him disrespecting all news platforms that might report true and proper news,” he said. “He’s going a little too far here, saying all news that’s against him is fake.” The pandemic, said the middle-school teacher, was creating more partisanship and division along party lines. “It’s becoming a deciding factor on how you view COVID,” she said. “That’s always been there, but COVID has made it more apparent.” 

Surprisingly, many participants cited the pandemic as something that has united the country—seeing Americans pull together to meet the challenge. “I truly believe that as Americans, no matter what we are faced with, we will be able to get through this," said one. “It’s just the way we are reaching out and helping, and I think that’s the American spirit.” Others agreed with that assessment, citing Americans “willingness to help” each other during the crisis as one of the things that made them most hopeful, in contrast to their skepticism of national government and media.

Despite those calls for unity, one theme that emerged from the discussion was a lack of equal rights for African-Americans, with several participants expressing frustration about unequal treatment. “We’re better off than 20 years ago, and we’ll continue to improve, but I don’t think we’ll ever be equal,” said a chat center manager. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes that opportunities are not shared to African Americans when moving up corporate ladders. We outnumber [whites in] the times we are incarcerated, we are shot, we are in poverty—I can go on and one.”

A group home director agreed. “We’re profiled and marginalized, so we don’t get the same civil liberties as others,” she said. “When you look at the prison system and statistics surrounding that, there are some unbalanced areas there.” 

One of the rights that garnered the most passionate support in the context of the current crisis was the right to privacy. “We need to have some type of data protection and government surveillance rights, especially with this new thing that they’re trying to push out with COVID-19, where they want to partner up with iPhone ‘and Google to basically track us,” said a data analyst.

Others expressed worry that the government would use the coronavirus crisis to chip away at civil liberties. “There’s an expression in politics, ‘Don’t let a great crisis go to waste,’” said a bookstore owner. “We had this happen with the Patriot Act after 9/11. It’s just taking the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, well, let’s kind of like horn in on our people a little bit more.’” 

Several participants expressed resentment of the state-imposed lockdown. “It’s restricting so many freedoms—the freedom to provide for your family, the freedom to be able to feed your children, to keep a roof over your head,” said a handyman business owner. The oil and gas worker agreed, saying, “I just have a huge problem with saying it’s okay to tank the economy and create a whole host of unintended consequences because we’re worried about the death rate.” 

On the other hand, when asked if the country should reopen without reservations, no one raised their hands. Most participants believed that there would be “chaos” and “panic” if the county were to get rid of all lockdown procedures. “It would be total chaos,” said one. “People are too frightened.”

The most contentious area of discussion was healthcare. Some participants agreed that government had a responsibility to provide healthcare to its citizens, while others saw it as a personal responsibility of the individual. “If you have it and like what you have, then you don’t want anybody telling you what to do, but for those who don’t have it and need it—or who are maybe who are prevented from getting it do to a pre-existing condition, it becomes a problem,” said an insurance worker, summing up the terms of the debate.  But another insurance worker expressed reservations about the government giving healthcare to those who don’t take care of their own health. “If I am morbidly obese, and smoke four packs of cigarettes and drink a pint of vodka every day, then I’ve forfeited the right by my behavior,” he said. 

Others contended that the government had a responsibility to provide healthcare no matter what an individual’s choices. “If they are uninsured, then the mass population is going to pick up the bill due to exorbitant healthcare costs anyway,” said the data analyst. “Everyone gets the same protection—you can’t pick and choose.”
Among other rights that participants cited as important were the right to free speech, a women’s right to choose, a right to suicide by euthanasia, and a right to equal opportunity in voting.  Voting rights are a hot-button issue in Georgia, where former secretary of state, now governor Brian Kemp, recently won over Stacey Abrams amid allegations of voter suppression.

 “Our current governor oversaw his own election, closed down voting—polling places in minority communities, and disproportionately erased black people’s names [from voting rolls],” said the data analyst. While not disagreeing, the oil and gas worker expressed concern over voting fraud. “You can point out the polling places being closed down, but also votes are being counted for dead people and people who aren’t citizens,” he said. “I believe our system is wide-open for fraud.”

The issue of voting fairness will become more contentious as the presidential election approaches. No matter who is elected, participants in the Atlanta town hall had similar messages for them. Nearly a quarter of the two-dozen participants had the same answer: “Equality.” Among other responses were “be more truthful and engaged” and just “do their damn job.” Several said simply, “Listen to the people.”