“We are in this together” has become a common phrase as we confront this unprecedented pandemic. The sentiment captures the genuine appreciation for the courage of first responders and essential workers whom we rely on to keep our communities running. It also acknowledges the hard realities of sickness, death and the growing economic damage that individuals, families and communities are experiencing.
The persistence of anti-Black racism belies this sentiment. Just this week in New York City, Amy Cooper, a white woman, falsely reported to the police that Christian Cooper, a Black man, was threatening her in Central Park. On Monday, George Floyd, a Black man, died in the custody of Minneapolis police. In February, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was killed while jogging in Glynn County Georgia.
None of these examples of racism were caused by COVID-19, but they do pose the question “Are we really in this together?” Drawing on the well-established stereotype of the dangerous Black male, Amy Cooper attempted to use the police to intimidate Christian Cooper even though it was she who was not following the law. This encounter reminded me of the lecture of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, during the campus Dr. Joseph L. White Lecture just this past January. Dr. Salaam was one of five young men of color who were wrongfully arrested by the police, charged by the District Attorney and subsequently convicted by a jury of participating in the sexual assault of a white jogger in Central Park in 1989. Christian Cooper’s only presumption of innocence was the fact that he recorded his encounter.
The recordings associated with the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery documented their terrifying final moments of life as Black men in the United States. The recordings did not save them. At most, they reveal the lethality of anti-Black stereotypes. George Floyd plaintively requested air and water while one Minneapolis Police Officer crushed his windpipe and others looked on. The violent denial of even these basic conditions of life recalled the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island as the result of a chokehold by a New York police officer. In a neighborhood in Georgia, the death of Ahmaud Arbery by individuals who took the law into their own hands calls to mind Trayvon Martin. While visiting his relatives in Sanford, Florida in February 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death citing self-defense. Trayvon was unarmed. So was Ahmaud.
These recent incidents of anti-Black racism add to the existing burden of fear. As UCI Professor of Sociology Sabrina Strings noted in a recent essay in The New York Times, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 related sickness and death on Black communities highlights the long-term effects of structural racism in the nation’s health care system, ranging from access and treatment to outcomes. Still, it is important to note that the novel coronavirus did not discriminate against Christian Cooper nor kill George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, but it was ordinary people who decided that their lives did not matter.
These are indeed costly lessons at the expense of Black people in the United States. They require each of us to confront anti-Black racism and embrace inclusive excellence. These are inter-related choices. It is not enough to expect equity for yourself without advocating for others. It is not enough to support diversity without learning about the communities that we serve. It is not enough to practice inclusion and resist building bridges of dialogue. And it is not enough to honor free speech without using it to defend inclusive excellence for all.
Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer, University of California
Director, ADVANCE Program
Professor of History, Humanites