On Thursday, June 4 at 6 p.m., the AACC presented the virtual town hall meeting “Racism and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the African American Community.” The group of panelists included Guymara Manigat, the president of the UConn Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Dr. Lewis Gordon of the University of Connecticut; Odia Kane, a master in public health from UConn; Theresa Hopkins-Staten, co-chair of the UConn African American Alumni Council; Dr. Derefe Chevannes of the University of Memphis; Dae-Zhane Boland, a master in public health from UConn; Dr. Cato Laurencin of University of Connecticut; Isaac Barber of the UConn Student Union; Wawa Gatheru, UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar and Scot X. Esdaile of the NAACP, National Board of Directors from New Haven, CT and president of the Connecticut State Conference.
The virtual town hall was co-sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center (AsACC), Women’s Center, PRLACC and the Rainbow Center. Dr. Willena Price, the director of the AACC, opened the forum, which reached a peak of 430 participants. Pauline Batista, program specialist of the AACC, acted as the moderator and timekeeper. In her opening remarks, Dr. Price quoted Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality … I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
This quote set the open and honest tone of the entire town hall meeting in which both panelists and other community members discussed the importance of action, education and continuous dialogue in order to combat the racism seen both on the UConn campus and throughout the world.
UConn President Thomas Katsouleas was also on the forum. In his concise opening statement, Katsouleas remarked on the importance of having difficult conversations in order to advocate for justice. He also stressed the necessity of using the momentum of the current time — namely, the wave of protests that have broken out across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, amongst others — to take action and bring about that change.
The panelists then introduced themselves and gave their own opening remarks. Manigat began with a moving “say their names” speech, in which she listed the names of some of the many Black people that have been brutally murdered by the police, such as “George Floyd: Murdered while an officer’s knee was on his neck” and “Michael Brown: Murdered while he held his hands in the air.” These were just a couple of examples from the dishearteningly long list.
Gatheru, the triple threat Rhodes, Udall and Truman scholar, explained her work as an environmental justice scholar. She described how the communities most afflicted with environmental issues of toxicity are also those that have the biggest structural problems, such as systematic racism and high levels of police brutality.
Dr. Chevannes, who recently received his doctorate in political theory with an area of expertise in Africana political thought, commented on how the murder of Floyd didn’t just become an African American moment, but proliferated into a larger international Black moment. Hopkins-Staten stressed how we’re all living in a very pivotal time in world history. Barber focused on asking questions and navigating strategies for people who claim the name of an “ally,” discussing the essential difference between being “not racist” and “anti-racist.”
Kane and Boland, both masters in public health, directly linked racism to the treatment and diagnosis of Black people with COVID-19, a topic that was further developed in the question and answer section of the forum. Kane referenced a study done by Diane Havlir at UC San Francisco, who found that in a certain area of San Francisco, 100% of those with the virus were minorities although the area was 34% White.
Rather than talking on generalities, Esdaile referenced the racist issues happening on our very own UConn campus. This included the lack of inclusion of Black students in campus-wide events and the tangible instances of White students on campus saying racist things either directly to or about Black students. Esdaile stressed the importance of having an open and honest discussion on what the administration will do to help alleviate this problem.
Dr. Gordon emphasized the idea that what we’re dealing with “is not one pandemic” but rather the convergence of multiple pandemics, including but not limited to colonialism, genocide, racism and of course the more tangible COVID-19. The common thread, Dr. Gordon argued, between all of these pandemics is “breath,” or really the lack thereof: From the cramped quarters of a slave ship to the constriction of the throat during a lynching to the physical and psychological boundaries of Jim Crow, it was “no accident that by the time we got to Eric Garner, his words were, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Dr. Laurencin also described the intersection of the two pandemics — racism and COVID-19 —that have landed “squarely on Black people in America.” Dr. Laurencin referenced a few key points from one of his papers that discussed the ways in which racial profiling affect the physical health of Black people, from actual death to sublethal instances in which injuries caused by police leave scarring to microaggressions like the verbal treatment of Black people by the police. Dr. Laurencin also shared the staggering statistic that Black people make up 25% of the coronavirus-related deaths in America, while the African American population is only 13% of the country.
The forum then moved on to the Q&A portion, with the first question being, “How has the spread of COVID-19 enhanced social disparity?” In response, Dr. Laurencin brought up the idea of working from home, stating that Black people are 30 to 40% less likely to have jobs that enable them to safely work from home. Instead, these people are either no longer getting paid or are placing themselves and possibly their families in dangerous health situations by continuing to go to work. Furthermore, Dr. Laurencin said it’s been estimated that COVID-19 has set the educational gap between Black and White children back another half year because of the disparate access to online resources.
Kane said communities of color are often more communal-based, with many living in multigenerational households. Thus, people living in these communities are naturally exposed to a larger quantity of people, and therefore, systems must be put in place to test entire communities and not just individuals with symptoms.
The forum switched from a general discussion on racism in America through the lens of COVID-19 to targeting the specific racist issues seen on UConn’s campus, with Esdaile blatantly asking, “What is the plan from the president to deal with racism on UConn campus?”
President Katsouleas’ response was not very specific, only noting that they would hire a new Chief Diversity Officer, bring new programming into the coming year and make strategic planning in order to achieve diversity goals. However, later on in the conversation, the new Provost Carl Lejuez jumped in and offered a few slightly more specific actions that the UConn administration will take. A few of the actions mentioned were appointing more people of color at upper administrative levels, putting a provision in place for a certain number of housing slots based on disparities and having training provided to deans and other leaders of the school.
Dr. Gordon stated that diversity plans at UConn in the past have been “a complete joke” because they’ve been locked into an individualized race representative model. It can be especially difficult dealing with “blockers,” as Dr. Gordon referred to those traditionalists that want everything to stay the same. He also noted that there needs to be a serious conversation on what belongs on the UConn campus and what doesn’t.
Gatheru and Manigat both spoke to the fact that UConn was able to create a special online one-credit, no-cost course explaining COVID-19 in under a month. It became the largest class in UConn history, with thousands of students enrolled. But when this same general idea for a course, focusing on racism and bias rather than COVID-19, was earlier brought to the UConn administration they claimed that there would be too many “barriers” to get a class of that magnitude up and running.
Esdaile stressed how UConn was the site of one of the biggest marches against racism in the country in Oct. 2019 and how it is one of the most racist institutions in the state. In a similar vein, Esdaile also urged members to reflect that Hartford is one of the worst areas in the nation when it comes to police brutality and racial disparity.
Before the forum came to a close, Angela Rola, the founding Director of the AsACC, said a few words. She spoke on the increased racist discrimination Asians have been facing since the extreme outbreak of COVID-19, citing how much of it is fueled by the rhetoric coming from Washington.
“Right now we need unity, not just allyship,” Rola said.
Dr. Price closed the discussion, hinting that another virtual town hall meeting would be coming soon to specifically focus on the voices of undergraduate and graduate students. Her final words, quoting Jesse Jackson, were “keep hope alive!” And even in the midst of the utter outrage and despair over the senseless tragedy of the murder of yet another Black person, the symbiotic collaboration and honest dialogue that took place at this forum certainly gave one a cautious sense of hope.