Commentary: The light of inequity shines brightly for blacks

Commentary: The light of inequity shines brightly for blacks
May 20
14:19 2020

By Dr. Howard Fuller & Shannon Williams

Throughout all of our experiences, we both agree that the COVID–19 pandemic and the effect it’s had on the people of America is unlike anything either of us has witnessed in our lifetime. But as usual, any crisis of this proportion will always have a disproportionately negative impact on the people who are already living with pain and suffering. However, the focus of our attention in this article is black people. 

We are not in the group who tout the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the inequities of America for poor black people. That light of inequity has been shining brightly for anyone who wanted to see it since we were brought here from Africa – first as indentured servants and then as slaves. The pain that permeates our community has been ever-present.

As we pondered over the state of being for our people, we are reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “The central quality in (black peoples’) life is pain – pain so old and deep that it shows in every moment of (our) existence. It emerges in the cheerlessness of (our) sorrow(ful) songs, in the melancholy of (our) blues and in the pathos of (our) sermons.  Black people while laughing (are shedding) invisible tears that no hand can wipe away. In a highly competitive world, (black people) know that a cloud of persistent denial stands between (us) and the sun, between (us) and life and power, between (us) and whatever we need.”

As we confront this pain and suffering, one thing is clear: we must not engage in “happy talk” about “we are in this together” and “we are going to be all right.” From our point of view, we are not all experiencing this pandemic in the same way. The death toll of black people is outrageous and unacceptable. And so is the idea that the economy is going to bounce back quickly. We know that for many of our people, this pandemic has only exacerbated their economic predicament, and it will have devastating consequences for years to come.

In our quest to figure out what to “do” and how to “be” during this weird, socially-distant and emotionally-draining time, the two of us find ourselves reflecting on something we’ve both known for years: the scales are unbalanced, be it from a racial, gender or socioeconomic status. As pleasant and uplifting as the phrase intends to be, saying “we are all in this together” is a fictional statement that discounts the reality that millions of people experience every day. We are not all in this together because we are not all suffering in the same way. Those of us who are blessed to have food, clothing and shelter, are able to do our jobs from home, have Zoom accounts, etc., are not experiencing this crisis in the same way as people who have lost their jobs, or people whose job is to risk exposure to save our lives, or who must go to low-paying jobs so that we can remain safe at home. No! We are not all in this “together” in the same way. 

We are both very caring and committed individuals who, because we understand this difference, our actions and advocacy are always going to be aimed at changing the situation faced by the most vulnerable of our people. We know they are experiencing pain. A pain we feel along with them. For us, the point of peoples’ pain permeates through our bodies like thread through fabric. It is something that never leaves us. That’s why these COVID times are so difficult for the two of us. We know what our people are going through – what they have always gone through. However, this time our advocacy and ability to connect in ways natural for us are grossly limited. And because of that, the constant state of anger that William Grier and Price Cobbs wrote about in their 1968 book “Black Rage” is stronger and even more resolute today.

So here we are, simultaneously in a constant state of rage and pain. We each know how to negotiate those feelings to function, but they never go away, as they are generations old and have always been there. In our individual worlds we continue to fight the good fight for our people, while entities like The Mind Trust and the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, both institutions we represent, work to advance educational opportunities for black and brown children. However, we are left wondering what happens next, beyond all that is now. What happens when normalcy resumes? What will be the new normal for our people – the ones who always carry the brunt of the repercussions of downtrodden economies, broken criminal justice systems, and now global pandemics? How will our people, our black and brown people, emerge? And how will the effects of our suffering that are already generations deep live in our bodies and minds? Our people have endured so much – from being stolen from our native land to dehumanized at the U.S. border, and so many more barbarousness acts in between and beyond those periods of time. The recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was stalked and gunned down while innocently jogging, is yet another example of the atrocious acts our people experience. However, sadly, this injustice will not be the last. History is our proof of that. So, what’s next? What are the solutions? 

We don’t know the answers, and in full transparency, that frustrates the hell out of us. Perhaps the solutions elude us at this point because we realize there needs to be an overhaul of multiple systems – deep, ugly discriminatory systems – to ensure these problems are truly resolved. Currently, the two of us work to disrupt the education system that has failed our people since the beginning of time. And while our work will continue, albeit in modified ways, there are things you can do … that we all can do. We must always venture beyond our pain to help others with theirs. Our deepest responsibility is to support the people who have the least and truly feel the pain of what our people are going through.

If there is one thing we hope you get out of reading this, it is to always focus your help at the beginning point of pain for others. This is what has guided each of us along our respective paths, and it is what might just help all of us move one step closer to the country the United States says it is, rather than the nation we actually are. 

Dr. Howard Fuller is director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He previously served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Shannon Williams is a journalist and former president of the Indianapolis Recorder newspaper. She currently serves as senior vice president of community engagement at The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education non-profit that works to ensure all children have access to a high-quality education. 

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