Here she goes, making it about race.
As I watch her speak to a live audience of many millions (14.6 million just on the three major networks and at least 20 million more on YouTube), that’s the first thought that comes to me. It’s not because she’s wrong. It’s because I’m imagining what lots of white people like me are probably thinking: Why does she have to do this now? Aren’t we all in this together?
The “she” is Beyonce, and she is on national television taking part in what is arguably the biggest televised charity event since LiveAid, talking about why Black Americans are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. But it’s not just Queen Bey talking about race during “One World: Together at Home.” It’s Van Jones and Don Lemon on a CNN special, “The Color of Covid.” It’s Oprah, Magic Johnson, Lin Manuel Miranda, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Snoop Dogg on social media and on news programs. The list of Black voices speaking on the topic is long, as long as the list of white voices is short, which is nothing new and still a problem.
I’m willing to bet Beyonce (and every other Black American) is sick and tired of talking about racism (not to mention actually experiencing it) but what choice does she have? Her community is deeply affected. In her hometown of Houston, Texas Medical Center officials said African Americans comprised 66% of the coronavirus deaths by mid-April while making up about 23% of the city’s population. And Houston isn’t alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new, preliminary nationwide data on Friday, that revealed 30 percent of Covid-19 patients are African American, even though African Americans make up around 13 percent of the population. The statistics from New York, Michigan, Louisiana, and basically anywhere cases are being tracked by race reveal the same devastating news: Black Americans are far more likely to become sick from or die of Covid-19.
As Black celebrities, journalists and scholars talk about this deep disparity in how Americans are affected during the pandemic, most of white America is spending a lot of time talking about how we’re all in this together. But are we?
“We’re all in this together” is starting to sound dangerously close to “I don’t see color,” that thing we white people say when we don’t want to talk about race. In this global health and economic crisis, just like before we ever uttered the word “Coronavirus,” the dearth of white voices speaking publicly about racial disparities seems even more pronounced. Sure, Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned it in a White House Briefing. CNN’s Chris Cuomo, in his basement recovering from Coronavirus, touched on it in an exchange with Van Jones during a promo for the network’s “The Color of Covid” special. But these “mentions” only scrape the surface, leaving Black voices on their own, again, in the white tsunami of “we’re all in this togethers.” Where are those white celebrity and influencer voices that we have heard from in the past but have seemed to slide right back into their quiet comfort zone? Where are the Anne Hathaways, Ariana Grandes and Chelsea Handlers right now? Right about now feels like the perfect time to spend some of that privilege that we have.
There are plenty of news stories citing the facts. Black Americans are more likely to be part of the essential workforce and have less opportunity to telecommute. They are more likely to have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk and have less access to healthcare. They often live in urban counties with a higher density of people and are more likely to be impoverished. And, they are disproportionately represented among the incarcerated and homeless populations. But these news stories are often missing crucially important information for many readers: the next step, the reasons, the through line to “why” all of these things are true. And because the “why” is located deep in the abyss where our traditional education system left out the facts — how our country was built on the backs of enslaved people, how “freedom” turned quickly to new forms of enslavement like segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration — we white people often decide to just fall back on words like “we’re all in this together,” without the action that requires that we are all actually in this together.
Because all of us have been so poorly educated about race in this country is precisely why white people — and not just celebrities and influencers — need to learn, speak up and take action. If you have not begun to educate yourself on race, now is a good time to start. Events like pandemics tend to shed light on inequalities and make them more clear to all of us, so it’s prime time to learn the “why.” You can start by watching a movie (Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix), listening to a podcast (I promise you will be transfixed by Scene on Radio’s “Seeing White,” from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke) or read a book (what a novel idea!) like Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped (it’s also great to listen to on Audible). Still getting a paycheck? Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp breaks down why Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and brown people and has created a Covid-19 Relief Fund that raises both awareness and money. You can give to one of Color of Change’s campaigns, support voting rights at Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, or give to a local Black-run organization like Beaty 2 the Streetz, Be a Blessing Birmingham, or Frederick Joseph’s #rentrelief. You can support Black businesses by participating in racial justice webinar like Rachel Ricketts’ “Spiritual Activism 101” or by ordering takeout from a local Black-owned restaurant. And don’t forget to desegregate your social media network by following people of color and amplifying their voices to your elected officials, in your (virtual) workplace, and to your friends on social media by sharing. There’s a lot you can do to spend the privilege you have right now, and you don’t have to be a celebrity or influencer to do it.
Racism is not something that just hurts people of color in this country. We all hurt when some of us do, and if you’re not convinced of that just consider the situation we’re in with Covid-19. Our interconnectedness has become clearer than ever — physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s time white Americans start to see that part of themselves that most of us have been ignoring or avoiding — our race — and learning what that means for us individually and as a member of society. If you’re white, you’ve always had a choice as to whether or not to consider, understand and actively work to dismantle racism, unlike Beyonce, Oprah and every other Black and brown person in America. Once we choose to see our own race as much as we see their race, that’s when we will actually start to be in this together, now and in the aftermath of this pandemic.