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Before he was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, George Floyd, like millions of African Americans, lost his job because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After months of a pandemic that has seen African Americans die at almost double their numbers in the U.S. population and generations of police and white supremacist violence against Black people, a mix of rage and despair is once again burning across the country.
The police violence and the impact of the pandemic are two sides of the same coin.
“What’s happened with Floyd, and in the history of the U.S., is about whether Black folks can execute power over what their lives are going to look like,” said Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization in Washington, D.C., focused on ideas that improve the socioeconomic status of African Americans.
In a nation radically altered by the coronavirus, Floyd’s death reminds us that some things have not changed.
A new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) states that racial and economic inequality have made Black workers, who comprise about 12 percent of the workforce, most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As of April, less than half of the adult Black population was employed. Many of those African Americans who were working are part of the army of low-paid essential workers, risking their lives for a paycheck. (Black women and Latinas are the backbone of this army.) And they are more likely to be uninsured, so they do not get medical care until they fall severely ill.
More than 50 years after the landmark Kerner Commission report, which called out the nation’s systemic racism after Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and other cities erupted in flames, the coronavirus has pushed this same unfinished agenda back into the spotlight. In between Kerner, we have had other moments and other reports and other opportunities to address the economic and racial inequality that abet police violence — Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, and in Ferguson after a police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014.
Yet here we are. George Floyd is dead. And millions of African Americans are unemployed.
The income and wealth divide between whites and Blacks amounts to an even more critical problem during the pandemic. White families hold five times as much cash in savings, checking, money market accounts, and other liquid assets as Black people, according to the EPI report. In 2018, median household income for whites was 70 percent higher than for Blacks.
This racial wealth gap means that African Americans are less prepared than whites to weather the COVID-19 storm. While African Americans experienced economic gains over the past few decades, the pandemic, like the recession from 2007 to 2009, threatens to erode what progress they have made. However, the gains never erased the persistent wage and wealth gap between Blacks and whites.
Several Black protesters have said, “If the police don’t get you, the coronavirus will.” Floyd pleaded for mercy as Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck until Floyd could no longer breathe. His death triggered the protests of the past week. But the issues that have driven people to the streets are the same as those identified in the 1968 Kerner report. Over the years, the report has become a benchmark for racial progress. Though it is typically cited for indicting a white, paternalistic perspective in the news media, it also proclaimed “white racism” as the catalyst for the unrest, condemned police brutality and proposed destroying structural barriers to racial equality.
“People understand the lynching of a Black man on video to be linked to a movement where overt white supremacy is surging,” said Eric Tang, a University of Texas at Austin associate professor whose work focuses on race and social movements in urban America. “At the same time, what we see is the way in which this unrest intersects with broader issues, just as we saw in the late 1960s when unrest tied to housing, unemployment and income inequality ripped through Black ghettos.”
Valerie Wilson, an economist and co-author of the EPI report on Black workers, agrees that the issues are the same today. “There were a number of recommendations to address those issues,” said Wilson. “But those recommendations were not taken up. So, what we have seen since is that we still have the same problems.”
The recommendations were never consistently pursued by Democrats or Republicans. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who appointed the commission, was unhappy with its conclusions. President Richard M. Nixon liked them even less. His law-and-order rhetoric echoes today in President Donald Trump’s response to the thousands of people whose calls for justice could result in what Johnson wanted from the commission — preventing more unrest from happening.
In his last minutes of life, penned to the pavement, George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” His life ended in the same way as thousands of Americans who have suffered from COVID-19. They could not breathe.
More than 50 years after the Kerner report, we cannot continue to separate police violence from racial and economic inequality. They are two sides of the same coin that is stealing Black lives.
Susan Smith Richardson is the CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization that focuses on democracy, power, and privilege.
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