Prof. Sophia Jordán Wallace
The Intersection of Protests, COVID-19, and Structural Racism
All of the tinder to ignite the current mobilization, protests, and resistance was already present, but was magnified by the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police. The United States has a long and disturbing history of political institutions and laws, as well as the actions of political elites, working in conjunction with one another to maintain a system of white supremacy and allow state-sanctioned violence against people of color including slavery, lynching, and the Tulsa race riots. Evidence of racial disparities in our society are numerous with stark differences in incarceration rates, wealth and home ownership, and death at the hands of the police.
Prior to the novel coronavirus, the country was already experiencing extremely high levels of economic inequality that rivaled the Great Depression. The pandemic has laid bare structural inequality and racism by exposing the ways in which people of color have been disproportionately impacted once again. Higher death rates and illness, the disproportionate risks placed on essential workers of color in service, transportation, and meatpacking jobs, and the staggering economic and job losses is a heavy load to witness and experience. COVID-19 serves as another episode of state failure where the state has not provided required action, protection, and support to all of its people.
When even in the midst of a global pandemic the loss of Black life at the hands of police did not stop, it was predictable that the tinder would be ignited to express the profound rage, grief, disappointment, pain, and disgust at what feels like a never-ending nightmare. People of color have an extensive history of organizing and mobilizing in the face of oppression through social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano Movement, American Indian Movement, Asian American Movement, Black Lives Matter Movement, and Immigrant Rights Movement. These movements utilize a wide toolkit of mobilization and protest tactics, but always bind participants together with a shared grievance with the state. Activists and participants are often met with state violence and repression to marginalize their voices, delegitimize their cause, and squelch their calls for justice and change. But the actors in these movements have persisted in their struggle for freedom and racial justice. Movements can be extremely effective in bringing about large shifts in policy, cultural norms, public opinion, voter behavior, and the behavior of elected officials. Activists in conjunction with communities will always continue to work tirelessly to identify the issues and push for major structural changes to dismantle structures that serve to maintain and reinforce systemic racism. It is possible that through the Black Lives Matter movement major structural changes will be realized and there will be significant changes in public opinion. It is essential that various groups of the polity adopt explicitly anti-racist positions and reject anti-black policies, practices, opinions, and structures that permeate our society.