The Epidemic of Systemic Racism in the Midst of a Pandemic of Illness

Camilla O’Keefe, Features Editor, Senior

The coronavirus has taken the world by storm; people are lining up for groceries, stores are closing for who knows how long, and children are forced to learn from home. COVID-19 has drastically affected all our lives one way or the other. But people of color are facing a crisis that goes beyond a global pandemic. While issues of racial inequality has sadly become a “normal” part of the public conversation, it appears that in the midst of this crisis, some are being singled out and victimized in new, more pernicious ways.

Physical brutality and verbal threats are an unfortunate, sad norm in the lives of members of the African American. These have proven to become worse during the time of the coronavirus. Sadly, I (and I am sure many other people) have heard some say that these acts of violence are all in the name of social distancing — the “greater good.” But violent acts that are based on fear or paranoia can be neither great nor good. Racism is so embedded in this country and its foundations that even during a health crisis it continues to thrive and continues to be excused.

On May 4, NYPD officers confronted a couple of people standing at a street corner because they were, “not wearing masks”. It is claimed that NYPD Officer Francisco Garcia and his partner used excessive force, dragging the suspects to the ground beating them. Onlookers came running to the scene, and that included NYCHA groundskeeper (New York City Housing Association) Donni Wright. Wright approached Garcia, telling him, “He didn’t do nothing, he didn’t do nothing” to which Garcia pulled out his taser and using abusive language to keep Wright and others from intervening. Wright, again, said that the man did nothing wrong. Then, Officer Garcia proceeded to punch, tackle, and beat Wright to the ground, using racist language while doing so, and handcuffed Wright while kneeling on top of his head. Wright and the other people that encountered Officer Garcia and the other NYPD officers that day were horribly brutalized and beaten for not wearing masks and for confronting the law officers on their violent tactics. The victims of this brutal beating all have one thing in common: they were black. 

Officer Francisco Garcia violently handcuffing an African American man for not wearing a face covering in NYC in early May.

More heinous, perhaps, is the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old black man jogging through Brunswick, Georgia on February 23. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis thought Arbery looked suspicious, tracked him down as he jogged, and fired two shotgun blasts into the runner. Though video existed of this crime, Georgia police refused to arrest or arraign the mane until public outcry forced them to do so on May 8 — forty-five days later.

Has the paranoia of quarantine caused our society to lose its senses and allow hate and racism to take hold? Because of this, many people of color are skeptical about putting on face masks which, while protecting you from one disease (coronavirus) while letting another disease (racism) kill them. Some argue that a person of color walking into a store, a gas station, or jogging through a neighborhood with a mask on could be seen as a criminal who is deliberately trying to hide their face. By safeguarding themselves from infection, they are instead putting a target on their backs.

Here’s a final illustration of the situation at hand. Two weekends ago in Manhattan, in neighborhoods that are mainly rich and predominantly white, people were out and about crowding in parks. The weather was nice and sunny, and few of these people had masks nor were practicing social distancing. And yet, officers were anything but hostile towards them. Officers patrolled these affluent, white neighborhoods and kindly gave out free masks and gloves. Residents were not even scolded for crowding. In black and latino communities just a couple of miles away, officers were not giving out free masks. Rather, they were giving out lectures, tickets, and arrests. Blacks and latinos were being accosted in the name of “social distancing.”

NYPD gently handling out face masks to white New Yorkers in a park in early May. (Photo courtesy of Shaun King)

Any time that blacks and latinos in this country face race-based violence is appalling. But the fact that COVID-19 is being used as an excuse for overt racism is not just disgusting, it’s sick.