On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. His unjust death has sparked protests worldwide. Americans have spent the past weeks circulating petitions, donating to bail funds and organizations that support Black communities, and encouraging each other to contact governmental representatives with messages calling for significant institutional reform and severe consequences for the police officers who have taken Black lives.
Floyd’s murder was not the first to lead to a wave of protests, but his death and the resulting outrage raise new concerns against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering that medical professionals have urged Americans to practice strict social distancing for the past two months, protests involving large groups of people in close contact with each other are risky. However, despite these risks, there is no better time for such a strong response to yet another demonstration of racial injustice.
Deciding whether to relax social distancing measures is an understandably difficult decision. Without a widespread testing initiative and adequate personal protective equipment for hospital employees, the US risks thousands of deaths by fully reopening the economy before the coronavirus has been contained. However, with such a high unemployment rate and no real plan to support Americans who have lost their jobs due to the virus, reopening some sectors of the economy is necessary. States have begun to slowly reopen by allowing their citizens to go back to work and relaxing the restrictions that brought economic activity to a standstill. In the wake of this decision, arguing that Black Lives Matter protests are inappropriate because of the risk of infection is hypocritical considering Americans will also be at risk of getting sick if they go back to work. Health officials have expressed concern that the gatherings could result in a new wave of virus cases. And their concern is valid. People who attend Black Lives Matter protests risk catching COVID-19 and potentially dying from the illness. But criticizing protests while approving returns to work and public leisure activities is a racist argument because the Black Lives Matter protests are as risky as visiting crowded public spaces, but have a far greater potential to incite positive change for Black Americans.
Additionally, just as police brutality and institutional racism predominantly affect Black communities, COVID-19 has disproportionately killed Black Americans. In cities severely affected by the pandemic, Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. In Washington D.C. the death rate is six times higher for the Black community than for their white neighbors. This disparity is the result of decisions that reflect intentional bias.
The vulnerability of the Black population to this virus is a symptom of widespread institutional racism. Ingrained hostility and bias towards minorities likely contribute to these extraordinarily high death rates by leading doctors to dismiss Black patients and their symptoms. The New York Times published an article in May that interviewed several Black families who had brought their symptomatic relatives to a series of hospital visits, only to watch them die of COVID. Many reported that their loved ones were only diagnosed when it was too late to act.
Officials in the Trump administration have attributed the death rate disparity to the prevalence of underlying conditions among the Black community, claiming that they have “greater risk profiles” than do white people. This explanation is a weak attempt to excuse government inaction, but Black communities technically do have greater risk profiles than white communities. Decades of discrimination, gentrification, and unjust policies have created Black communities that are overcrowded, lower in income, and that lack adequate access to health care. Racism is the real underlying condition responsible for the higher incidence of infection among the Black population.
The Black Lives Matter protests are about so much more than just George Floyd and police brutality. Black Americans and their allies are fighting for an end to the structural racism that culminated in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others and the conditions responsible for their disproportionate vulnerability to COVID-19. They are protesting because the institutions that have promised to protect every American are failing. Neither the health care system nor law enforcement protect Black lives as they should. Instead, both contribute to a racist ideology that pervades American government and culture and prevents Black citizens from achieving equality and safety.
If we are going to reopen businesses to save the economy then we should also be able to protest to save human lives. Economic growth may have slowed to a halt during the months of social distancing, but institutional racism did not. There is no better time to protest than now, in the wake of even more senseless murders and a pandemic that takes even more Black lives. The Trump administration has demonstrated that they have little interest in protecting Black Americans from either police brutality or COVID-19, exhibiting an adamant refusal to combat racist ideology within US policy and practice. In his June 16 executive order, Trump described a database for recording instances of excessive force used against civilians, but did not acknowledge the history of systemic racism within law enforcement institutions.
The issues at the heart of the protests are so great and so dangerous that even health officials have declared their support for the movement. The current protests are too late to prevent the COVID-related tragedies the Black community has already experienced and will experience as the pandemic continues, but today’s outrage can become tomorrow’s action. The effects of the pandemic on Black Americans is a reminder of the progress we still have to make towards dismantling the systemic racism in our society. When the government fails to protect its citizens, the people are left with only their voices and each other. Wear a mask, protect your friends, protect yourself, and exercise your right to assembly. Black lives matter, and they always will. It has always been the right time to fight for them.