The kettle is whistling. The water is roiling. Why now? What takes a simmer to a boil?
On Tuesday, muted in solidarity, I called my friend Anasa. She bears no responsibility to answer my queries or hold my shaking hand. Yet she gives me two full hours of her self; her story, her wisdom, her grace. As I listen it becomes evident that, despite studying race relations in college, my true understanding of the African-American experience is a speck on a pinhead.
This is what sinks in when you take one day to shut the hell up and listen:
The fire under this kettle was lit as soon as The White Lion dropped anchor. The heat has been relentless for Black Americans ever since, but over the last three months, the burner has ratcheted up under the entire country. The murder of George Floyd, the final 212th degree.
The coronavirus was the first layer of tinder, revealing the stark inequality and the fragility of the safety net for African-Americans.
Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to die from the pandemic than White Americans. In Illinois, African-Americans make up 15% of the population and 42% of the deaths. In Chicago, 30% of the population and 72% of the deaths. Those statistics hold true everywhere. Why?
African-Americans predominantly live in poor and dense urban areas, which makes social distancing impossible. They often suffer from pre-existing conditions, making them susceptible to serious reactions to the virus. This co-morbidity has its roots in the inaccessibility of nutritious food and quality health care. The jobs available to African-Americans do not frequently offer health insurance but, ironically, often pay too much to qualify for Medicaid. I The kettle simmers.
Dire health outcomes were compounded by the fact that many Black Americans do not have a reserve of savings to buffer sudden unemployment. Unemployment for Black Americans was 6.7% in March. Now, it is 16.8%, stressing households already on the brink. The token relief of federal funding was not equitably distributed to black businesses, as PPP funding went primarily to businesses with established banker relationships. Despite Friday’s surprisingly positive job report, black unemployment ticked upward. Often last hired and first fired, less than half of black adults now have a job. The water bubbles.
And then, on Monday, May 25, the world witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd. Just one more in a seemingly endless litany of brutalities against African Americans — but this time, steam jets out the spout.
The wicked triptych of the pandemic – with its disproportionate impact, persistent economic disadvantage intensified by unemployment, and a chronic militarism brought into stark relief in Minneapolis – opened the floodgates. And folks poured out into the streets.
Protests set against the backdrop of COVID-19, still stealing a thousand American lives daily, presents an agonizing choice: What takes primacy: righteous passive resistance or public health? This pathogen will surely spread through the spraying passion of those of us gathered tightly on city streets. The willingness to protest, despite the virus, reflects the depth of public rage.
But, of course, many Black Americans were never working remotely. They are disproportionally the bus and subway drivers, sanitation workers and meatpackers, grocery and convenience store clerks, nurses and delivery people. Not only do Black Americans bear the brunt of the epidemic of police brutality, they are also the most exposed to the viral pandemic because they are, and always have been, among America’s essential workers.
In the last 13 days, we have collectively spiraled through myriad emotions: anger, frustration, despair, uncertainty. But in this emotional murk, a ray of hopeshimmers, spurring us forward.
This passion is being channeled into a level of civic engagement unseen in half a century. Thousands have joined in increasingly peaceful and patriotic protest. A significant number of white people are pausing to take moral inventory and examine their responsibility and accountability for the racism endemic to our country. The pandemic, which forced many to look inwards in a reassessment of priorities, has kindled a mass expression of renewed moral clarity.
This broad coalition has inspired global demonstrations of solidarity, reminding us of what made America great in the first place. When we are at our best, we inspire the world.
In this tumult, we ask, “What now? What can we draw from the past?”
A humble prayer:
If you are protesting, you are the face of the movement. If you do not assail, the movement becomes morally unassailable.
If you wear blue, take a knee, don’t brandish one. Wield tears, not tear gas. Trust is built in vulnerability.
If you are white, now is a time to learn, grow, donate and serve. Meditate in the discomfort of sitting outside the circle. Be humble in solidarity, but never silent in complicity. Leverage your privilege and platforms in support of justice beyond performative allyship.
This will be a battle both of and for hearts and minds. It will be dramatic and dull, rebellious and systemic. The broadcasting of continued police brutality and political venality that equally horrifies and inspires us, rests upon the structural and banal: The denied loan, rebuffed application, redlined district, passed-over promotion and rejected offer. It is rooted in a privatized prison system that incarcerates 20% of black men, two-thirds of whom have not been convicted of any crime but cannot afford bail.
The challenge must be met with inspired oratory, peaceful protest, activist art and civil disobedience: actions that shine a light on injustice and demand attention. But this effort will fall short, as President Obama recently wrote, if there is not systemic, legislative and institutional change both at the federal and the local level, where most police and criminal justice reform takes place. Let many march in the streets in June so that we ALL march to the polls in November. (Read Stacy Abrams’ Op-Ed on why voting is so important.)
When leadership is as deaf as justice is blind, when it bunkers away only to emerge viciously as a false prophet, then who raises her hand to lead?
Are you ready?
Are you willing not just to answer the call, but also answer the calls? Right the wrongs and write the laws? Pray with your heart and with your feet?
It will take a village to build a global one. Pastors and web designers, community organizers and speech writers, meditation teachers and loan officers, secretaries and bail bondsmen, lawyers and civil servants, health care workers and a vice president.
If you want in, there’s a role for you, however you can authentically show up.
The water is boiling. The kettle is screaming.
Will it evaporate? Will it just condensate? Or worse, will it burn?
Or will this steam, which when harnessed powers the locomotive and riverboat, propel us towards justice?
There is work to do. Finally, it feels like it is up to us.
Let’s be here for each other,
P.S. Commune is offering free social impact courses including Unwinding Prejudice with Evelyn Carter. In addition, here is the resource list we shared last week. Please share both widely! And thank you Anasa for providing information critical to this article. As always, I encourage you to email me at [email protected] with questions and comments on this week's Commusings. I read every one.