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Something to Think About: Structural Racism and COVID-19?

Op-ed by Rev. Michael Vaughn

Rev. Michael Vaughn, Sr. Pastor, New Wineskin Church

As we all know, we are in the midst of a pandemic and have been this way since March of 2020.  During this time there were many drastic (some would say draconian and others may say unnecessary) changes that took place in our society.  These changes were aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus and therefore saving lives; at least that is what we were told.  Here in New York State, there were some of the most drastic changes implemented than was seen in most other states.  What came out of the desire to make these changes was a color-coded system by which the governor could determine the level of restriction to be applied to an area.  On the surface these seemed like a good idea to try and manage this situation.  However, taking a closer look at it, it seems as though structural or institutional racism has been enabled.

One of the color-codes for this new system is orange.  If an area is declared to be in the orange zone, they are restricted from having indoor dining and there are to be no in-person classes at schools.  As we entered into the winter months, beginning in December, the number of cases began to increase (not a surprise, not because of Christmas gatherings but because the coronavirus is the same type of virus as the flu and we noticed higher flu rates in the winter) and therefore some areas were designated as orange zones.  Two interesting observations were noticed.  One is that the data shows that the number of cases were rising not because of folks going to restaurants or schools but from in-person gatherings at homes.  The second observation is that most of the orange zone areas, at least here in Monroe County, are centered in the urban center; Rochester.  One could argue that that is because of population density but it is the restrictions, not the designation that is the issue.  The urban centers happen to be the place where, proportionately black and brown people live.  Therefore, the draconian restrictions are having a much larger impact on black and brown people than their Caucasian counterparts.

In the suburbs inside dining remains open so those owners are able to continue operating their businesses with a level of income that is very much needed.  However, because of the orange zone designation in the city of Rochester, restaurants are having a difficult time.  This also happens to be affecting black and brown businesses more.  The other travesty is that schools in the city of Rochester are not able to hold in-person classes.  They have to continue remote “learning”.  However, in the suburbs children are minimally going to school, in-person, two days/week.  If they go to a private school, it could be as much as everyday.  Again, black and brown children are being disproportionately impacted.  The Rochester City School District was already hurting in the successful distribution of education, the orange zone designation only helps to push the district back even further.

What we are seeing is the economic degradation of black and brown business owners as well as the educational degradation of black and brown children.  Black and brown children stand to get further behind educationally and that has far reaching implications.  Structural racism is when a set of public policies (COVID-19 Color-coded system) reinforce racial inequity.  Through this system, the inequity heaped upon black and brown owned businesses and students (and their community) is reinforced.  It has to change; the people of the city have to rise up and demand that change occur.  If the suburbs can figure out how to have “safe” in-person dining and classes, the city of Rochester can as well.  Our business owners and students are falling behind and it will take years to make up.

There is a move afoot to do what we can to reduce and ultimately erase structural racism.  However, if we are going to be successful, we have to stop being afraid of the ramifications of the current culture and tell the truth and stand for nothing less than the truth.  Combating these restrictions is needed, now, to stop our children and business owners from further damage; in the name of public health.

Rev. Michael is senior pastor of New Wineskin Church. Contact him at