Today we are all sheltering in place. To defeat a lethal enemy, we sacrifice freedoms, limit contact with others, surrender financial security, and restrict ourselves from things we would like to be doing, in service of the greater good of saving lives.
It strikes me that the same thing was happening around this time 57 years ago.
On April 16, 1963 (Good Friday that year), 50 courageous individuals chose to be commanded by the government to remain in place; they did so to combat a pernicious, nation-ravaging evil that had taken countless lives and seemingly knew no borders. Led by Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Albernathy, these peaceful protest marchers were incarcerated by Bull Connor. They intentionally remained in jail, eschewing bond, to combat the deathly evil of racism.
From that very Birmingham Jail, Dr. King would pen his rightly famous letter. He challenged us to pay attention to what his moment made clear, bringing to the surface the problems already present.
“We bring [racism] out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. … Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Dr. King taught us that racism must be exposed. In the age of COVID-19, racism certainly has been exposed as a stubbornly infectious and lethal American virus. Racism is combining with the coronavirus to double the damage inflicted upon African Americans.
We learned last week that people of color are dying disproportionately of the novel coronavirus. While some sing the chorus “the virus knows no color”, African Americans are dying of the disease at alarming rates: people of color constitute 42% of COVID fatalities, but only 21% of the national population. Here in Chicago, the statistics are more stark: 70% of coronavirus deaths have found victims in our African American community.
The injustice has been exposed is that both COVID-19 and racism are killing the black community in Chicago and throughout America. This is not the bias of petty personal prejudice, but racism entrenched in American institutions: the legacy of intentional racist policies that led to tragic disproportions in housing, educational opportunities, food availability, employment prospects, and wealth generation.
Racism kills. It killed through the master’s whip. It killed through lynchings. It killed through the KKK. It kills through mass incarceration, with Cook County Jail serving as the worst current example. But racism also kills through the continuing effects of centuries of American policy that are every bit as lethal.
Yes, we are seeing death by COVID-19. But we are also witnessing death by racism. And through our history, racism has a much higher and even more tragic body count.
Fifthy-seven years ago, Dr. King did more than shelter-in-place to combat racism; he went to jail.
I imagine Dr. King might be encouraged to see all we are sacrificing to counter COVID-19. But I know he would also challenge us with this question: if we are willing to sacrifice to fight one deadly disease, what will America muster finally to combat the lethal virus of racism?
Americans have proven this month that, even without strong centralized leadership, we can unite to combat a pernicious killer. We can combine individual effort with state leadership and unprecedented federal investment to overcome a menacing threat.
Once we defeat the coronavirus, the time has come — and the road map has been drawn — for us as a nation finally to defeat the plague of racism.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is senior rabbi at the Chicago Sinai Congregation.
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