For Black Americans, COVID-19 is not the only pandemic afflicting everyday life. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade have shed light on the ugly infection of racism that has been plaguing the United States since its founding. Their murders have sparked the flames that have reinvigorated protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement many are calling the Civil Rights Movement of our generation. Indeed, COVID-19 has exposed the racial struggles and disparities for Black Americans and has contributed to the civil unrest demonstrated through the ongoing protests.
Although the Black Lives Matter movement was born seven years ago, it has recently gained another wave of traction, launching protests across all 50 states and throughout many countries. Perhaps it is because of the timing of these murders – happening during the four-month period in which COVID-19 was ravaging the United States and its communities. The two maladies, COVID-19 and racism working in parallel with one another, created the conditions that outraged people and drove their demand for change. It is rare that millions of people experience the same hardships at the same time– right now, America is ill from two outlets of shared loss and pain.
For African Americans, COVID-19 has proved especially devastating to their health and jobs. The negative impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected the Black community. According to APM Research Lab, COVID-19’s mortality rate for Blacks is 2.4 times higher than its rate for Whites. The study shows that Blacks represent roughly 13% of the population but make up 25% of all COVID-19 deaths. Even late last week, when the economy began to show signs of improvement as the white unemployment rate dropped from 14.2% in April to 12.4% in May, the Black unemployment rate increased from 16.7% to 16.8%, CNBC reports.
The combination of the disparaging impacts of COVID-19 on African Americans and the recent media coverage of police brutality against Black Americans and murders of unarmed Black people have sparked civil unrest. On May 26, 2020, the day after George Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis went up in flames. His death was the most recent in a series of unjustified murders of Black people, and it was his that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. George Floyd’s death represented the culmination of frustration about COVID-19 and racism. Floyd’s autopsy revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, Floyd’s violent death and his simple plea for air captured on a cell phone video set Americans over the edge. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis happened 15 minutes away from the place where Philando Castile, another African-American male, was killed by a white police officer in 2016. Floyd was also murdered in close vicinity to where Jamar Clark, another Black man, was fatally shot by white officers in 2015. In Minnesota, Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be killed by law enforcement. For these reasons, Floyd’s death was the one that erupted protests, and Minneapolis was where America was forced to turn its head to witness the flames that marked the start of a second Civil Rights Movement.
Not only have African Americans risen to fight the systemic oppressions they see afflicting their communities, but many non-Black allies have risen to join them in protests as well. Across all 50 states and from London to Tokyo, non-Black allies have joined their Black counterparts to demand change. Possibly, the shared experience of pain and loss that COVID-19 has created amongst all groups, as well as the recent murders of Floyd, Taylor, Pop, McDade, and Arbery, has allowed non-Black people to not only see the urgency of the Black Lives Matter protests, but to also empathize and actively participate. Additionally, the acknowledgment of Black disparities by non-Black people may have prompted them to use their privilege for good. Allies have been crucial to the success of these protests because they have used their privilege to call attention to the injustices done against Black people. It is sad that this is necessary, that the Black voice alone, a voice made from millions of pleading souls, is more readily ignored than others to sway white America despite how powerful it is.
On social media platforms, namely Instagram, Deerfield students both, Black and non-Black, have expressed their anguish. Many non-Black students have vowed to become more active allies and have promised to use their privilege to help their Black peers. One of the most notable posts I’ve seen is about how it is not the job of the Black community to educate their non-Black peers about when they are being racist. This responsibility lies in non-Black people educating themselves.
Many of my non-Black friends have reached out to me and extended their support. Though this has been very touching and great to hear, I often question where this allyship was when we were on campus. Maybe this is because it is easier to make promises and posts online, but it is more challenging to enact these proclaimed changes in person. Maybe there is something about Deerfield culture that deters non-Black students from openly showing their support for their Black peers. One incident where I felt that this was true was when someone wrote the racist and homophobic slurs on the windows of the Hess. In the meeting that the school held in the Caswell to create a safe space for students to discuss how they were feeling, those who attended were largely members of the Black and LGBTQ communities. There were few allies in attendance. I wonder why more non-Black and non-LGBTQ people failed to show up, when so many of them now believe that it is not the job of the oppressed community to educate their counterparts on their oppression.
I urge you all to attend more alliance meetings when we return. Go to the Black Student Alliance meetings! Go to the Asian Student Alliance meetings, Gender and Sexuality Student Alliance, Latinx Student Alliance, Muslim Student Alliance, Jewish Student Alliance Meetings, and to all the other alliance meetings! Be an ally when #BlackLivesMatter is no longer trending. Support activism when it isn’t number one in the hashtags. It can become dangerous when allyship is vain and insincere. The keyword in “activism” is “act.” Remember to act on those promises you’ve made, because I, and many other students of color, will be waiting to see these actions.
To the Deerfield administration: I hope that the protests have urged some reflection. Whenever incidents occur both on campus and outside of campus, Deerfield always puts out a statement condemning the negative actions and extending its support to its students who’ve been affected by the situation. And although these statements are well-intentioned, I sometimes cannot help but feel tired and sometimes annoyed by them. While I appreciate these words of encouragement, it would be nicer if Deerfield produced an action plan on how it would support its students who are affected by the situation. Some alumni have started a petition that calls for the school to donate millions of dollars to organizations and funds such as Black Lives Matter and the Brooklyn Bail Fund. Though it would be nice if the school made a monetary contribution to these groups that work to advocate for Black rights, I believe that it would almost be more beneficial if Deerfield used this money to enact some internal improvements. In giving this money to other organizations, Deerfield would be supporting a good cause but would fail to initiate changes to its own community to improve conditions for its Black students.
One suggestion I have for an action plan is to create a social justice course that would educate students on how to navigate increasingly diverse spaces and challenge them to question how each student’s unique background informs their privilege. This course would create a more understanding student body, promote inclusivity, raise personal awareness on the part of each student, and would possibly limit the number of hate crimes committed on campus. In fact, our peer school, Northfield Mount Hermon has a course entitled “Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice” that reflects the school’s “emphasis on multiculturalism and commitment to equity.” Deerfield could offer this course as a single term graduation requirement or as an upperclassman elective.
Another suggestion is to implement the DEER (Discipline Educate Empower Restore) Committee, a disciplinary committee for inappropriate racial incidents. The committee was recently rejected by the administration, however, I see a pressing need for it. As a former member of the Disciplinary Committee myself, I think a separate committee for racial incidents could be beneficial since the DC is more focused on asserting whether or not a major school rule has been broken and responding with punishment. Sometimes racial misconduct and inappropriateness aren’t clear to define whether a school rule has been broken or not. They are often more nuanced, but just as if not more hurtful as bullying. This committee would make students more conscious of consequences to racial intolerance and acts of discrimination and thus deter such incidents from occurring more frequently.
A third suggestion is to hold more conferences and open spaces such as Caswell meetings where students and faculty could discuss any issues they see within the community and ways to address them. I often feel like these conversations are had after the matter – after a hate crime has been committed, or a microaggression has been uttered. In this way, students would feel like the school has provided enough support and has used its influence to help drive more positive change. Some students feel like the school’s efforts and priorities are misled. In a recent DBSA meeting last week, a statement that recent alumni Deandre Ortiz ’20 said earlier in the school year sparked criticism by some students of color who felt that Deerfield’s efforts in ensuring a safe community were often misled or focused towards the wrong things. Ortiz stated, “I feel like the school spent more time trying to find the pot-smoker in Field (Dormitory) than trying to catch who wrote the slurs on the Hess window.” This statement stuck with me, and made me question Deerfield’s priorities to the student body.
A fourth suggestion I have for the Academy is to hire more Black faculty members. It seems that almost every year Deerfield loses a Black faculty member, the impact on the Black students is a loss of a trusted adult on campus, and the task to find another connection with a different adult. This school year I think Deerfield had 4…4! In enacting any of these suggestions, or others, Deerfield can work to become more proactive rather than reactive as a community.
During these difficult and unprecedented times when it is hard to be away from each other, reflect on your ability to enact positive change. Upon our return, our own Deerfield community will be tasked with finding remedy to both ailments we see America battling today: the effects of COVID-19 and racism. Though discussion of both will prompt difficult conversation and even more difficult solutions, we must not cower to what makes us uncomfortable. Rather, Deerfield, like many of the protesters must rise to the occasion and use this time of uncertainty as an opportunity to restore assurance of the positive change we wish to see. Deerfield students along with the administration must work to become active allies to their Black students. I want to conclude with a message I saw on a protester’s sign. It read “(Black lives) matter is the minimum. Black lives are worthy. Black lives are beloved. Black lives are needed. I hope you all feel empowered to rise up and fight for Black Lives to not only matter, but for them to be worthy, beloved, and needed.