June 22, 2020
Four of the Kennedy School’s leading scholars on race, history, and public policy discussed the relationship between structural racism in the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring the current and vital issue were professors Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; Leah Wright Rigueur, whose research explores political and social history, race, and human rights; Desmond Ang, whose recent research found strong connections between police violence and student performance in minority neighborhoods; and Cornell Brooks, director of the Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Center for Public Leadership. The panelists explored the role historical and structural racism have played in leaving Black people in the United States disproportionately vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic, social, and health consequences, and how the same forces have contributed to police brutality and other discriminatory practices. They also discussed ways that Harvard Kennedy School can contribute policy ideas and leadership to help anti-racism efforts succeed. Their conversation was part of a new summer series of the Dean’s Discussions with HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf, moderated by chief of staff Sarah Wald.
One thing that I think this pandemic has really brought into stark relief is just how differently different communities and neighborhoods are treated. You may recall the headlines in New York city a month ago about how the vast majority of people who were arrested for violating social distancing orders were Black. At the same time there were all sort of videos circulating and showing hordes of white people sunbathing together in public places, and more recently we've seen images of NYPD officers refusing to wear masks at Black Lives Matter protests. It's driven by the fact that law enforcement, as an institution, just looks completely different when you go from one neighborhood to another, when you're in white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. And to be clear, this is often explicitly by design. So this is how you get someone like George Floyd getting his neck kneeled on for eight minutes for using a counterfeit bill. Or if it's someone like Eric Garner, they're being put in a chokehold for selling cigarettes, right? This type of thing is by design and it just doesn't happen in other types of neighborhoods.
There's a temptation with respect to COVID-19 to offer up biological explanations. The respiratory systems of African Americans are different. The bodies of black people are different, and this somehow explains these racial disparities. This is not unlike what happens in the context of discussions of police brutality—namely there's something uniquely distinctive about a black body. Police officers certainly act as though black bodies can withstand more pain. There's this notion that somehow our black bodies are in fact different. Then there are the behavioral explanations of the novel coronavirus, the notion that racial disparities and ethnic disparities … can be explained by the behavior of the victims. Going back to any number of other health challenges in the past when we look at migrant communities, immigrant communities, we'll blame it on crowded living conditions, unsanitary living conditions, the unhygienic habits of those in migrant communities and immigrants, and such is the case with African Americans. And this is not only true with respect to COVID-19, it's also true with respect to police brutality, that there's something about the behavior of the victims of police brutality that explains their victimization. So we have discussions about how we police communities with high crime, as opposed to how we police communities of color—the assumption being that with certain communities, we can do things that we don't do in other communities.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
I think it’s best to initially make a claim, and that is that there is no aspect of U.S. history that doesn't run through the story of race and racism. And that any effort to determine one is itself part of the story of 400 years of erasing that central fact. Our political institutions were built with the idea that chattel slavery had to be incorporated one way or another. The wealth of the nation itself was born of both land theft and labor exploitation. As obvious as this sounds to me, this must be repeated over and over again because it cuts against people's belief systems. We're a school that was built to articulate applied knowledge, so I think people here do understand that belief systems are more powerful than data itself. One of those belief systems is that racism is the problem of the idea of anti-blackness, not the problem of the organization of our society. But in fact, it's the other way around. Racism is the way that this society was organized to essentially extract from groups of people. Mostly those people were of African descent in the context of chattel slavery.
Leah Wright Rigueur
Part of why we can't look away from something like George Floyd or the symbolism of George Floyd's murder at the hands of state-sanctioned actors, is that COVID-19 has quarantined us. So we quite literally cannot look away. Also, part of what George Floyd symbolizes is this larger question of racial inequities and disparities that we have in our society. What we see with George Floyd is that he has COVID-19 in his lungs when he's killed by the police. And part of that points to the failures of the American healthcare system and the repeated diseases that disproportionately target and affect black people. So I think there’s this kind of twin sense of a pandemic within a pandemic …. And it's really important, particularly as we think about the failures of these larger state-sanctioned systems and the failures of democracy. [It] is particularly important that we have this conversation at a public policy school, because the larger question is how these kinds of historical and continuing failures actually reflect on us. So how have we continued to fail in terms of public policy, public officials, and public institutions, particularly in intervening in the crises of black people, and in this case, particularly the crisis of COVID-19.
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