Today I’m moved to reflect on the two pathologies gripping our nation, and our world. The first is Covid-19 bringing not only death, illness and fear, but also joblessness, uncertainty, loss of hope, and conflict over when and how much to reopen for business and normal social life. The second is racism, bringing death and illness from violence, inequities in health care, jobs, housing, education, and so many other facets of life. The two pathologies intersect, so that people of color are disproportionately falling ill and dying of Covid-19.
My thoughts today owe their inspiration from a broadcast email from the chair of MIT’s Biology department, Alan Grossman. In this email, Prof. Grossman confesses to his own struggles to come to mental grips with the George Floyd tragedy. He wrote that, as a biologist, he could understand and deal with Covid-19. Certainly many uncertainties remain about the biology and pathology of the virus, and hugely consequential questions are being debated about how cities and states should respond. But this pandemic will pass. As biologists, we know what the solution looks like – a vaccine. We know reasonably well when this pandemic started and we can estimate how long it may take to get to the end.
In contrast, the pathology of racism appears to have no beginning – it has seemingly always afflicted humanity. We cannot see an end. We appear to have no effective treatments or vaccines. To biologists knowledgeable about human genetics, the concept of human races is almost nonsensical. Every human population is a twig or branch of the great tree of humanity rooted in Africa. Yet our notions of race and tribe complicate everything.
I am in my mid-sixties. Until a few years ago, I had thought that modern societies, and the United States especially, had made significant progress towards equity and justice. I witnessed the first Black President of the United States, and nearly the first woman President. A naturalized, Korean-American immigrant, I had married a woman who could trace her ancestry to the Mayflower. We have a beautiful daughter who embraces both her ancestries, and she went to wonderfully diverse public schools and has friends of all colors.
Then Trump was elected President. I cannot adequately express my shock, disbelief and sense of betrayal, still. A man who was the darling of white supremacists and actual neo-Nazis. A man who repeatedly doubled down on insults and slurs towards Mexicans and Africans. A man on video record as boasting about grabbing women’s genitals. A man who was obviously ignorant of both the US Constitution and the Christian Bible. White Christian Americans voted for him in droves. People in my own church voted for him – people I had respected and considered friends.
Until today I have been stunned into muteness. I recalled my immigrant experience from childhood to adulthood, trying so hard to blend in, and always being conscious that I was different – the only Asian kid in my class, in my high school. The unshakeable feeling that I wasn’t a real American, because real Americans are white, as in all the TV shows and movies and books. Now the President of the United States is saying that implicitly in his tweets and actions. So are his supporters – all the people who voted for him and continue to support him and vote for his enablers in the Senate and House of Representatives. People in my own church.
Oh, they make exceptions for me and others they know personally. They can deal with and show kindness to select “other” individuals. So their lips disavow racism, while their votes elect racists and support racist policies.
I look now for strength and inspiration to the people who have most suffered injustice and oppression. The black community has learned how to endure, and continue to strive, live, and love one another and love their white neighbors in the face of daily injustices.
I no longer think we can cure or even treat effectively the pathology of racism. What we can do, and must do, is care for one another, and pray that will be enough.
I pledge to support and care for each person as I find them.
I pledge to act on my faith that every human being is beloved of our Creator.
All lives cannot matter until black lives matter, and Hispanic and Asian and native American and queer and every other color and kind of lives matter.