Op-ed by Jerome Underwood and Daan Braveman
The COVID19 pandemic has painfully reminded us of long existing disparities in the way people are treated in this country. Monroe County is not immune to the inequity of suffering. Be it education, housing, employment, criminal justice, or health care, people of color have been experiencing vastly disproportionate outcomes for decades. These items, and more, are commonly referred to as social determinants of health. The undesirable outcomes are evidence of entrenched systemic and institutionalized racism.
At RMAPI’s inception, there was healthy and heated debate regarding what should be the initiative’s guiding principles. We concluded that trauma, systemic racism and community building are the principles that should be the rudders of the work. It is very important, and timely, to point out that there were people who did not want trauma and racism lifted up. So adamant were they in their opposition, that they withdrew themselves from the initiative. We wonder what they must be thinking now. Like many others, they may be distracted by the social unrest that took place in Rochester and across the country. Conversely, much more of our collective focus should be on the events that precipitated the need for the social unrest – yet another lynching of an unarmed Black man.
It is foolish to think that we can counteract poverty without directly confronting racism in all of its forms. We want to emphatically state that racism is a primary antecedent to poverty. It is certainly not the only one, but for many people of color, it is the driving force to economic and social/emotional oppression.
The disproportionate level of suffering and death for black and brown people as a result of COVID19, coupled with the recent series of violent occurrences against Black people – the murder of Ahmaud Abery in Georgia; the murder of Breonna Taylor in her bed in Louisville; the weaponization of male blackness by Amy Cooper in Central Park, NY; and the lynching of George Flloyd in Minnesota – these are unfortunate reminders that racism is thriving.
RMAPI’s response will be to refocus our efforts on the guiding principles of trauma, racism and community building. All of our actions must be filtered through an equity lens – one where justice is something that is engrained, as opposed to being an after-thought. We must be much bolder than we have been. The poor and oppressed demand that. We demand that. We encourage all of Monroe County’s residents, organizations and businesses to embrace a similar strategy so that we can make real transformational changes to improve the lives of people who have been systemically oppressed and marginalized for far too long.
Jerome H. Underwood is President & CEO of Action for a Better Community; a member of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group and Co-Chair of the Rochester Monroe Anti-poverty Initiative.
Daan Braveman is President of Nazareth College and Co-Chair of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.