Op-Ed: Racism is a virus and we need a more potent prescription

Sunday, June 21, 2020 - 2:27pm

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Quote card by Opinion SE

Pain has become our national anthem. We saw it printed in the names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims on the front page of The New York Times. We heard it in the pain of George Floyd’s cries. We heard it in the screams of people whose livelihoods were reduced to ash and tear gas. We felt it at the protests against police brutality that followed suit in my hometown and around the country. 

Yes, the pain in America is universal today. But that does not mean it hurts the same for all members of society. In a way, the pandemic has shown the world a snapshot of the struggles faced by people of color in America, battling an unseen enemy. For minorities, the struggle is nothing new. People of color have been fighting a different unseen enemy since the United States’ inception — and now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re fighting two.

Racism, like a virus, is invisible. It's not a living thing nor does it have a single face. It's hard to diagnose because in the aftermath of a person of color’s preventable death, one’s claims of self-defense or that he looked “suspicious” are often viewed in the courtroom as asymptomatic good intentions. Every time a police officer is acquitted from killing an unarmed Black human being, it's clear the virus remains unchecked. Ultimately, it is terrifying how the infection of just a few people upon their arrival in America enabled the virus to infiltrate every corner of a future nation. 

There are reports that COVID-19 was spreading through the country in late January, weeks before evidence of community spread was first detected. In that short period of time, the virus was free to run rampant, push our health system to the brink of collapse, demolish our economy and shake our nation to its core. In just a matter of months, COVID-19 was able to claim over 100,000 lives in the U.S., a horrendous and unimaginable loss we will not soon forget. However, it’s important to note that racism in the U.S. has been infecting American society for over 400 years. 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, mass incarceration, economic disenfranchisement, gentrification, health inequity and police brutality all born from the same bug. Where is the body count for the lives lost and the pain brought from a virus running rampant for four centuries and beyond? 

We are past the point where contact tracing and isolating “a few bad apples” will help us combat this virus. We need concrete action — not hashtags, because while inspiring, no amount of tweets or likes on Instagram are going to heal this nation. The healing process can’t begin until we combat the injustice and inequity that has plagued America for centuries. It should start (but not end) with eliminating police brutality. When it comes to this issue, people of color are not asking to be saved; we don’t need saving. All we need is “a seat at the table” when decisions about police training, conduct and discipline are being made at the state and local government level. Every municipality should have elected community representatives present during any meeting that convenes law enforcement leadership.

Politicians and the federal government have become immune to public opinion. Rather than holding our breath for action, the people should work to demand solutions straight from the source of the problem. Using petitions and peaceful protests, we can put pressure on local government, police departments and police academies to take action to prevent police brutality. There are no excuses anymore. It’s not as if we don’t know how it can be prevented. Countless organizations have outlined the steps local governments can take, including co-response programs that enable professionals to respond and non-violent situations concerning homelessness and mental health. In addition, law enforcement must provide continuous training for officers and work to build trust with the community they serve

Long after these local changes are made, we must continue to hold police and their departments accountable. If policy changes are not eliminating incidents of police brutality and misconduct, no law enforcement official should be getting paid until they can identify specific ways they can improve. Promotions and pay raises for officers should correspond to how much safety and trust they have fostered among the community they serve (if at all). A randomized survey within a jurisdiction can quickly quantify these metrics. Hope of any promotions or bonus checks should be eliminated at the first sign of misconduct from any officer. Reporting and attempting to stop colleagues’ misconduct should save an officer from losing one’s job, rather than lead to unemployment, as it did in the case of former Buffalo police officer Cariol Horne. The bottom line is we need to recognize this problem as the epidemic it is. Just like we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, inaction and empty promises will only worsen our loss. 

Beyond waiting for policy and legislative change, I would argue that it is time to start energizing the next generation of leaders in the U.S. justice system. While policy and legislative changes can be wide-reaching antidotes, their potency is limited by whether stakeholders in our judicial system are willing to uphold them. Treating the racial bias within our system requires a more potent prescription for affecting change. Too often the justice system fails people of color due to the discretion of district attorneys, prosecutors, sheriffs, police officers, judges and other judicial system officials. We must work to organize, educate and inform the next generation on what specific action they can take in these roles to combat mass incarceration, implicit bias and other infectious inequities that plague the system. A grassroots movement among collegiate institutions and police academies dedicated to meeting this need could suffice. Such a movement could generate the potent change we so desperately need from the inside out. 

Ultimately, it may seem like all the pain in our country right now is new, but the truth is that pain has always been America's anthem. Yes, it's true that it didn’t always make the news or the front page. Nevertheless, it was always there. The unseen enemy was always present. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply magnified it. We mustn’t be tempted by nostalgia for our pre-pandemic lives. As long as racism is a virus that continues to spread, returning to normal cannot be an option. Our complacency with what’s considered normal in America is what has allowed the virus to spread for so long. After battling COVID-19, I hope one thing has been made clear: When it comes to any virus, its mere presence is a threat to all. Even if you are not Black, even if you are not a person of color, even if you are certain it can’t hurt you, combating a virus is everyone’s responsibility. Everybody’s freedom is threatened until it is stopped. 

Soneida Rodriguez is a rising senior in the School of Literature, Science, & Arts and can be reached at soneida@umich.edu.