Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Potentially Ominous Development for COVID-19 in the United States

While it was only this past winter, it seems almost ages ago when COVID-19 first emerged on the world stage.  One of the hopes being bandied about, even by President Trump, was that coronavirus would go away as temperatures got warmer.  

Now we are seeing that hypothesis being tested in real time.

With roughly similar population sizes, the states of Florida and New York have had very different experiences with COVID-19.  New York, particularly New York City, saw a tremendous surge in new cases in mid-March, and rarely had a day with fewer than 4,000 new cases from March 22 through April 30.  Meanwhile, Florida, with a slightly larger total population, rarely experienced more than 1,000 new cases per day as late as June 2.  However, starting in early June, there has been a radical change in the numbers of new cases the two states are reporting, and this line graph chart I prepared pretty much tells the story:

Beginning on June 3, Florida started to surpass New York in new cases.  Still, it was not by a significant margin, and as you can see in the chart, the difference in the numbers is not that much.  But since June 9, Florida has seen a noticeably upward trajectory in new cases, while New York continues to trend lower and the gap between them widens.

One thing's for sure, these developments should put to bed any hopes that COVID-19 would disappear in the summer heat (Florida being a southern state, experiences New York summer temperatures in early spring).  Hopefully Florida will hit its peak soon and the numbers will go back down again.  Only time will tell.

About a month or so ago, conservatives were comparing New York and Florida's Coronavirus numbers as evidence that Florida's governor Ron DeSantis was handling the outbreak much better than New York's governor Andrew Cuomo, as New York has a roughly comparable population.  However, the Coronavirus game is not over yet, and it may be too early for DeSantis to start running a victory lap.

Where's George?

Anyone in the United States who hasn't been living in a cabin in the woods knows about the death last month of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands (or more accurately, the knee) of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, as well as the subsequent protests and riots that followed.

Without delving into the data, it does seem like an awful lot of blacks, adults as well as adolescents, die in encounters with the police that appear to happen for very stupid reasons.  Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, was shot multiple times in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building at night because an undercover police unit driving by deemed he looked suspicious.  When they approached him, he reached for his wallet, causing the officers to assume he was reaching for a gun, and they opened fire on him.  The catalyst for the incident that led to Michael Brown getting shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri was because he mouthed off to a police officer who had reprimanded Brown and his friend for walking in the middle of the street as the officer drove past them in his squad car.  Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner on Staten Island and died after being placed in a chokehold after being uncooperative with the officers who had responded to a complaint about him.  Sandra Bland was found dead hanging in her jail cell three days after being arrested from an altercation she had with an officer who pulled her over for failing to signal when changing lanes.  12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death with very little warning for holding a gun that turned out to be a toy.  And the police encounter that lead to the death of George Floyd came about because a shop owner believed that Floyd had knowingly passed along a counterfeit twenty dollar bill.  These people, among many others, were either doing nothing wrong or at worst committed a rather petty offense that no white person would ever expect to lose his or her life over.

The death of George Floyd and the response it has generated reminded me of an incident I had witnessed some years ago in which a black person found herself seemingly out of nowhere and for no good reason subdued and arrested by the police.

I don't remember the specific date, or even the year for that matter, but I was in Penn Station in Manhattan as I was on many an evening waiting for a train to go home.  At some point, I took note of a white man who I guess was in his thirties, and a black woman who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, walking together.  Sometimes when I am standing in a public place with nothing much to do, I will take note of the people around me, especially if something about them draws my attention.  I don't know what the extent of their relationship was, whether they were friends or if they had met in a bar or got high together earlier in the day and had never even known each other before that.  At some point, I saw the white man separate from her and he went into the pizzeria.  I was standing outside of the pizzeria in the promenade, about twenty or thirty feet from the entrance.  Rather than ordering a pizza, I noticed the white man walk further into the pizzeria, looking back to see if the black woman could see her, a rather mischievous look on his face, until he walked out of an exit at the other end of the pizzeria.  Moments later, the black woman, who realized the man was gone, started calling out for him and looking for him.  She sounded like she was high, judging by the affect of her voice.  I recall it almost being childish, like a kid looking for a missing pet, but not yet at the point of frustration.  "George, where are you?" she called out.  She walked into the pizzeria, looking around, asking rhetorically, "Where's George?"

I was watching this play out with a bemused fascination when one of the pizzeria employees, who deemed that she was starting to become a nuisance to the customers, began yelling at her to get out.  The black woman then became argumentative in response and they got into a heated exchange.  I don't remember if someone specifically called the police, or if the officers who approached the woman just happened to be nearby, as Penn Station has a very visible police presence, but it didn't seem to take long for them to arrive on the scene.  The black woman, who I presume was not in a sound frame of mind due to being high, was uncooperative with the police, and the incident quickly escalated out of control, with the officers wrestling her to the ground and handcuffing her.  I distinctly remember a young black man witnessing the incident plead "Come on, this isn't necessary!"

As for myself, I was shocked at how quickly what seemed to be an amusing episode I observed while waiting for my train turned into a police incident that resulted in a woman, who only moments before struck me as peaceful and harmless, being arrested.  I was angry with George, whose ghosting of this woman caused her to become so distressed in the first place.  I even felt angry at myself, as I was contemplating approaching her in the pizzeria to help her find George, as I saw he had slipped out the other end of the pizzeria.  Maybe if I had, the altercation with the police would not have happened and she would not have been wrestled to the floor and handcuffed.   Even if George couldn't be found, maybe I could have helped her in some way, maybe convince her to go home.  I don't know.

While the woman was black and I believe the several officers involved were white, I don't think it was a matter of white police officers being overly harsh with a black person.  I can easily imagine a white person high on drugs and belligerent and resisting the police being treated the same way.  But regardless of the race of the people involved in the incident, it struck me as sad to see how something can so needlessly and quickly spin out of control like it did.  Who can say how many times incidents like this happen in America every day?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On The Misunderstanding of White Privilege

Every now and then I will see a fellow white friend on my Facebook feed rant that there is no such thing as "white privilege" because poor white people had to struggle to survive and get ahead in America.  They interpret the term as meaning that every white person in America has an easy life compared to every black person. 

Like myself, many of my white peers who hail from the same suburban Long Island town as me are descended from immigrants from Europe during the last century or so.  The prism through which they view America is that of plucky, determined immigrant ancestors from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Greece or any of a number of other European countries who arrived on these shores and through dint of hard work made better lives for themselves and their descendants.  As far as they are concerned, they had no part in the enslavement of African-Americans, segregation and legal discrimination.  From their point of view, African-Americans (or "blacks") are just another group in America and that today at least they should theoretically be equal to whites, and if they aren't, it's their fault because they don't try hard enough.

What they remain ignorant of, whether willful or not, is the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism that has corrupted American society and victimized blacks in a manner that European immigrants to this country and their descendants did not have to experience, no matter how poor or destitute.

Would an Irish or Polish working class family need something like The Green Book to know which hotels, bars and restaurants they would be welcome at when driving across the country on vacation?  Or how about something as basic and All-American as going swimming in the local pool or the beach?  Just yesterday I watched a documentary called White Wash about how surfing essentially became a predominantly white activity because of the obstacles that kept blacks from learning to swim and have access to beaches.  Consequently, there are many blacks in America today who do not know how to swim and are more likely to drown than whites.

Last year, I read a book called Black Tudors, wherein I learned that once upon a time, it was blacks who were more likely to swim than whites.  The following passage from the book is a useful summary:

"As most Renaissance Europeans were unable to swim, the free-diving skills of Africans such as Francis were admired and prized across Europe and the Atlantic world.  A 1500 painting by Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, shows an African about to jump into a Venetian canal.  In Genoa, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli employed an African as a swimming and diving instructor.  Ferdinando I de Medici was saved from drowning in the River Arno in 1588 by 'a negro of his, a very notable swimmer'.  When Richard Hawkins visited the Spanish pearl fishery at La Margarita, off the north-eastern coast of Venezuela, in 1593, he observed that the Africans deployed there were 'expert swimmers, and great divers' who over time and with 'continual practice' had 'learned to hold their breaths long underwater, for the better part of achieving their work.'  Pieter de Marees, a Dutchman who travelled to the Gold Coast in 1602, noted that Venezuelan slaveholders sought men from that specific area to employ as pearl divers as they were 'very fast swimmers and can keep themselves underwater for a long time.  They can dive amazingly far, no less deep, and can see underwater.'

In the post-World War Two migration to the newly created suburbs, if you were white you did not have to worry about racially restrictive covenants that forbade the sale of homes to blacks.  Home ownership helped build the white middle class by creating a source of equity and the accumulation of wealth with the rise of property values.  The lack of access to home ownership for blacks also denied them access to such means of wealth accumulation.  Even when blacks could buy homes, they were often steered towards predominantly black neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable and where property values were lower.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which blacks have been disadvantaged in comparison to whites, but rather a short summary and brief starting point to further explore the issue of white privilege and institutionalized racism.