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by Rev. William Kearney, Warrenton, N.C.
Food, Fitness & Opportunity Research Collaborative

What’s race got to do with it?

As communities across the state struggle to adapt to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many African Americans living in rural communities are carrying extra burdens resulting from years of systemic racism and neglect.

I live and work in Warren County, North Carolina where I was born and raised. Warren County has an interesting history – built on a slave economy and its health resorts, it was once one of the state’s wealthiest counties but now is one of the state’s poorest counties. In 1969, Floyd McKissick, civil rights leader and director of the Congress of Racial Equality, chose Warren County as the site of Soul City, an idealistic African American community. Warren County is also known as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. In 1982, Warren County citizens led the PCB toxic landfill protests that birthed the environmental justice movement.

I am a witness to the lasting impacts of 400 plus years of racial oppression towards African Americans. For many living in Warren County, the terms “Stay Safe, Practice Social Distancing, Shelter in Place, Self-Quarantine, Work from Home” are easily said but not at all possible to do. Past and present racist policies and practices make survival for many even in good times a day-to-day struggle; now, during the COVID-19 crisis, life decisions are further complicated. Our choice is to die one way, or another.

The African American community still suffers from the damaging consequences of slavery, racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation, discriminatory practices by government agencies like HUD and USDA, mass incarcerations, underfunding in education and health care, lack of job training and economic development, voter suppression, exploitation by big business, pollution and unsafe environments, and intimidation by racist hate groups.

Mary is an African American woman struggling to make it in rural Warren County. She is 25 years old and has a Criminal Justice degree. Mary now has to pay off her student loan while seeking full time work – preferably a job in the criminal justice field. Before finding herself out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis, Mary worked part-time as a youth counselor and front desk clerk at a county parks and recreation center where she was paid $8.00 per hour. She was usually called upon to cover weekends and to fill in for other staff members, but because she was not a full-time employee, she did not receive health or retirement benefits.

Mary was recently denied re-enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. She was denied coverage because she made too much money. She is concerned that she might not have a job after the COVID-19 crisis is over; with this in mind, she is hoping to find a full-time job. Mary needs dependable transportation. The family vehicle she used to get to and from work needs major repairs.

Mary is thankful for the support she receives from her family, community, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She lives with family members who help with transportation to buy groceries at several big box stores located at least 18 miles from her home in adjoining counties. The three hospitals serving Warren County are also located in these three surrounding counties. She prefers shopping at these box stores because their prices are cheaper, and there is more to choose from than at Warren County’s two grocery stores.

Mary appreciates that the federal government has expanded unemployment benefits to include part-time workers – she has applied, but feels it is still not enough. She says the government needs to do more; there need to be long-term changes to help people in predicaments like hers. Help with student loans – maybe student loan forgiveness. Help with affordable housing. Help with full-time employment with livable wages. She understands the importance of our vote and young people being politically engaged, and served as a volunteer with the local Democratic Party in 2017 through 2019.

I share Mary’s story to highlight some of the challenges of surviving both the negative effects of racism and the COVID-19 crisis in rural Warren County while also trying to “Stay Safe, Practice Social Distancing, Shelter in Place, Self-Quarantine, Work from Home.”

It is heart-wrenching to witness the daily struggles of people I know and care about. Like so many people across America who are struggling to survive not just because of COVID-19 but also because of historical, unfair policies and treatment perpetrated by our government, banks, and other institutions. Because of these unfair and discriminatory practices, rural African American communities are at a huge disadvantage, making us even more vulnerable to the health, economic and social impact of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Some might argue what I am highlighting are the effects of poverty, not racism; after all, many poor whites and Latinos, etc. find themselves in a similarly dire situation. I would argue that one of the most profound and consequential ways that racism has operated in our country is by preventing poor and middle-class white Americans from seeing how much they have in common with poor and middle-class African Americans (and other people). That is, after all, what wealthy and powerful whites have always tried to do – use race to keep the poor apart, by telling whites that they are “better/superior than” thus suggesting that others are “less/inferior than.” While we (the poor and middle-class) fight over the crumbs, they (the wealthy and powerful white) consume the main course. It is only by recognizing the way that lie has operated to keep everybody worse off that we stand a chance to making real progress. Maybe this is a moment when we can do that.

I would propose that rather than continuing to bury our heads in the sand so as not to truly confront our country’s racist history, we take this as an opportunity to confront these disparities, by naming built-in disparities for what they are. Racism. Racist systems, racist policies, racist practices. We should use our collective voices, political power, positions of privilege, media platforms and other resources to challenge racist systems and elevate the voices of the oppressed who are demanding justice. This is our opportunity to advocate and work for racial equity. This is our opportunity to create a new reality by re-booting, re-imagining, and restructuring our racist systems/institutions.

The work for racial equity will require each of us to do a personal assessment. We must question ourselves about our own implicit biases and how we see and relate to others who are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. That disadvantage is now manifesting in people losing their lives at a higher rate not because of their personal behaviors but because of systemic inequities which have caused health care, housing, economic, employment, environmental, education, and investment deficits in the African American community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to accentuate the obvious: that African Americans and white Americans live in parallel worlds. African Americans and white Americans experience different daily realities while existing side-by-side in the same systems and spaces. Yet we are connected by our

humanity. We are connected because we are all part of a greater community – local, regional, state, national, global community. We share this same planet Earth. Whatever impacts any one part of this shared community impacts the entire community, regardless of how close or how far apart we are geographically, politically, or racially.

We are connected. We are together. Let’s finally start to act like it!


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