Six experts in public health, racial injustice, economic inequality, extremism, and Unitarian Universalist theology talk about the deep fissures the past year has revealed—and how we can move forward.
The last twelve months have felt like the end of the world.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken well over 500,000 lives in the United States alone—with widespread vaccination efforts still underway. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic’s deadly toll has fallen most heavily along the old, familiar lines of race, class, immigration status, age, and disability.
As the virus surged over the summer, Black Lives Matter protests swept the country after police in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd. Many were met with violence from law enforcement—not least in front of the White House, where then-President Donald Trump sought to restore “law and order,” as he called it, at the end of a truncheon.
While those two crises unfolded, millions of Americans also found themselves unemployed and facing the threat of eviction due to the pandemic. Food banks and social-service agencies were overwhelmed, and the chasm between workers and owners grew even wider.
Events reached their nadir early this year, when thousands of Trump’s most extreme supporters, fed by online disinformation and the former president’s own lies about a stolen election, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow American democracy.
It all felt apocalyptic, in the original Greek sense of apokálypsis, or “revelation.” Like the visions of St. John on Patmos, these past months pulled back a curtain and showed us unsettling things about ourselves as a country—things with roots that go much deeper than this pandemic or even a presidency.
UU World spoke with six experts on public health, racial injustice, economic inequality, right-wing extremism, and Unitarian Universalist theology about what the past year has revealed, where the roots of these crises lie, and how to (re)build in ways that center Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and others who have historically been excluded from America’s promises of equal justice and opportunity.
Here’s what they told us, edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Ameera Haamid, emergency medicine attending physician at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital: The clearest injustice highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic is racial inequity. COVID-19 deaths have been, and continue to be, disproportionately Indigenous, Black, and Latinx. This is not due to genetics. It’s due to years of overt and covert structural racism impacting an entire population’s ability to survive the infection.
Dr. Michele David is chief of clinical quality and patient safety at MIT Medical, a former associate professor of medicine at Boston University, and a member of First Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Dr. Michele David, chief of clinical quality and patient safety at MIT Medical: Many essential workers don’t have good access to healthcare. Why are they essential but not protected with a good healthcare system and good pay? Some keep blaming them for getting COVID-19. But it’s not your fault if you have to deal with the public because you’re an essential worker, yet you’re not provided with appropriate personal protective equipment or good training on how to use it.
Peniel Joseph, founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin: The links between criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration, voter suppression, and the COVID-19 pandemic are the sweet spot to innovating both antiracist public policy but also institutionalizing reparative social justice and racial equity policies at the local, state, and national level.
Olugbenga Ajilore, an economist, is a senior advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Olugbenga Ajilore, senior advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Structural racism is probably the most consequential inequity that the past four years—actually just this past year—have revealed. We had the murder of George Floyd and countless African Americans, along with the disproportionate adverse impact of the pandemic. This past year has shown us that structural racism exists and how it works. In addition to structural racism’s impact on African Americans, it impacts the whole economy and harms everyone.
Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism: We now face a monumental challenge, unprecedented since the end of the Civil War, frankly, to figure out how to move forward as one nation. In the previous case, we did a terrible job, prioritizing white comfort and reconciliation over racial justice. If we are to become a country that finally lives up to its founding ideals, we cannot make the same mistakes.
The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, senior minister of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland: We are seeing a troubling alignment of the Christian right with proto-fascism and religious nationalism. Today’s Christian right teaches that the role of the religious community is to enforce a very narrow understanding of Christian faith and to require adherence to that view through legislation.
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. His latest book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Joseph: We are seeing the consequences with the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. The conspiracy theories, false allegations of voter fraud, violence of MAGA supporters, and the GOP’s commitment to voter suppression and anti-democracy will continue. We require massive public civic education about how the origins of our discontents are rooted in America’s original sin of racial slavery, violent and continuing allegiance to white supremacy, and the evolution of that system and ideology in our own time.
Haamid: In the coming years, we will see increased mental health needs among those dealing with the virus. This is especially true for healthcare providers who work in emergency departments or ICUs. In addition, families who lost loved ones to the virus may have a hard time coping—especially if they infected a loved one. Our incarcerated populations will need attention, too.
Ajilore: We have to worry about an economic recovery that is not inclusive. We saw this with the Great Recession, where many marginalized communities and rural areas were left behind.
Seyward Darby is the author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. She is editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine.
David: We can’t just keep saying, “Stop evictions.” Many people still don’t have money to pay back rent. And we’re facing a huge food insecurity issue. Our social system is not prepared to help this huge number of people in that way.
Darby: First, there are millions of Americans, the vast majority of them white, who believe the election was not valid. Some support the violent overthrow of the state. This situation is urgent.
Second, look at the number of women who’ve left the workforce. Look at the number of students falling behind in their education. The long-term consequences could be staggering without concerted, far-reaching intervention by both the public and private sectors.
Darby: Push your representatives to take serious action on immigration, economic reforms, healthcare, judgeships, climate change—everything. Do the same on the local level. Listen to experts on countering hate speech and talking to loved ones who are in the grip of conspiracy theories.
Dr. Ameera Haamid is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Rush University and an emergency medicine attending physician at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital, where she develops initiatives related to structural racism and social justice.
Being an agent of change means you’ll make mistakes—that’s OK. Learn from them and keep going. Building a better society doesn’t mean being comfortable or perfect all the time.
Haamid: We face an uphill battle with vaccine access and hesitancy. Due to years of violence against the Black community in the name of medicine, some Black patients are hesitant about these vaccines. But many change their mind every day. Unfortunately, many also lack access to community healthcare providers, internet access, and transportation. That often keeps them from being able to get vaccines easily. We have to take the vaccine to them instead of waiting for them to come to us.
David: I’m not actually in favor of defunding the police, I’m in favor of reforming the police. What I say in my church in Brookline is that, if you are a white person and you go to a very important meeting and only white people are there, there’s something wrong with the picture. The meetings won’t address every group’s needs.
The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, author of After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, is senior minister of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland.
Ajilore: While getting national policy action is difficult, there are opportunities to make changes at the local level. Local change sometimes bubbles up to the state and national level—see, for example, Fight for $15. The key is to translate this local organization into policy.
Ladd: Congregations are claiming their place as a base for the people’s power. When Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, once served by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sent their own pastor, the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, to the U.S. Senate, we saw such clear evidence of the historic power of the Black church. Progressive religious folks need to get serious about broad-based community activity. The work ahead will require every single one of us.
Haamid: My recent COVID-19 vaccination gives me hope for the future—hope that I can continue to keep my family, and especially my mother and father, safe from the virus.
David: My sister-in-law is a very close friend. I FaceTime her every day. I’ve been doing the meditation app Headspace every day. I’m very active in my UU church. I also do health education in our Haitian community, in Haitian Creole, which has been very life affirming for me.
Ajilore: The number of women of color in Congress has been rising recently, and we have representatives who have a different lived experience from members in the past, which will better inform policy.
Darby: I try to support my community through small but sustained actions and giving. I read and listen to thinkers and experts on racial justice. I admire my friends who are civil rights lawyers, LGBTQ advocates, community organizers, healthcare workers, teachers—all the people doing work that requires hope and resilience.
Joseph: I find strength in my faith, family, friendship circles, and daily yoga and meditation practice. I am privileged to be a teacher, writer, and storyteller, and I find joy in being able to read, study, write, and teach about historic and contemporary activists.
We have, I firmly believe, a generational opportunity to defeat white supremacy, eradicate racism, and in the process finally achieve the country we have always imagined ourselves to be.
Ladd: During the pandemic, I have never seen the people I serve hungrier for theological thought. These days, ministers are obviously not just managers or CEOs, but public theologians who are imperfectly, authentically making meaning in front of people—all while inviting them to do the same. Nothing energizes me and gives me hope more than that.
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Joshua Eaton is an investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.