COVID-19 has ripped off any cover that still obscures the deep inequalities burdening communities of color in America — inequalities that have, in a few months' time, become too obvious and too ugly for the rest of us to ignore. They are driven home by what we watch hour after hour on the news to which we are glued, and by what we can see around us. Americans at large are now clearly dependent for their sustenance, if not their survival, on their countrymen of color, on recent immigrants and on those with different-sounding names: medical personnel, food industry workers, public transit workers, nursing home workers and many others.
The communities carrying the nation on their backs happen to be the same ones suffering from the coronavirus in disproportionate numbers. In metropolitan areas across the country, black and Hispanic Americans account for wildly out-of-whack percentages of those stricken, a function of inferior access to health care, frequently inadequate housing and high-risk jobs. "People of color are being infected and dying from coronavirus at astounding rates," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who recently introduced the COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act to focus on assessing that impact and remedying it. "The very communities of color bearing the burden of this pandemic have been bearing the brunt of systematic inequities since long before COVID-19," says Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. "Residents of color are over-represented in the case counts and also make up more of our frontline workers risking their health to keep everyone safe and sound." Those communities will also bear the brunt of the job losses soaring daily and the suffering associated with them.
But that isn't a heavy enough cross to bear, evidently. The Anti-Defamation League, long the gold standard of anti-bias organizations, warns that the upsurge in American hate dating to 2016 has spiked further since the virus' outbreak. "The blame game has already started," wrote ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a USA Today piece he co-authored with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang in March. "(T)here's now a serious risk that this kind of hateful rhetoric and outright scapegoating of minorities will take on a life of its own."
Two weeks ago, the ADL released a list of examples of the harassment and threats to which Asian Americans were subjected in the first half of April alone. These included racial slurs, physical assaults, threats of violence, racist graffiti and Facebook vitriol. Last week, the ADL reported on anti-Muslim bigotry in a time of pandemic, exposing "American anti-Muslim ideologues propagating a range of conspiracy theories aimed at stoking fear, claiming Muslims are defying social distancing rules and actively trying to spread the virus." The ADL has been front and center in pressuring social media platforms to clamp down on the white supremacy that continues to metastasize on the internet; Greenblatt has not hesitated to personally confront social media executives over their companies' role in enabling the dissemination of hate.
Greenblatt is peripatetic by nature and of necessity even during "normal" times. These days, he seems to be everywhere — here, focusing journalists on the venom being spewed, and there, partnering with other civil rights groups to push government and the private sector to do more. "Throughout history," he observed last week, "hateful actors attempt to seize the narrative around global health pandemics by placing blame on minority communities. The same is true with COVID-19."
The last few years have made it clear that we are not the America we had hoped we were, and the current crisis has opened our eyes to just how much has to be fixed. It isn't "only" a pandemic and economic convulsion. The coronavirus has spawned its own virus, a grotesque hatred directed at those to whom we owe so much, yet another challenge for a country badly in need of course correction.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.