• John Ikerd

What have we learned from the crises?

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

What have we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests of police brutality? As different people, we have different life experiences that affect our perception of reality and our ability and willingness to learn. However, the past few weeks have given us all opportunities to learn some valuable lessons that can guide us in shaping the future of our nation. The vulnerabilities and strengths of any nation or society are revealed during such times of crisis.

The COVID crisis revealed the metaphorical lesions of a growing racial, cultural, and economic division that has been festering in this nation for decades. The police killing of George Floyd laid bare the wounds of police brutality that has persistently targeted African Americans. On the other hand, the crises have also revealed a firm foundation of empathy, compassion, and mutual respect that periodically rekindles hope that our nation will eventually live up to its noble ideals.

As is common knowledge by now, most who have suffered and died from the COVID-19 virus have been residents of nursing home, workers in meat processing plants, and inmates in prisons. Instances of COVID infections among other demographics have been significant but more similar to those associated with previous strains of seasonal flu. It’s also common knowledge that instances of serious illness and death among racial minorities has been far greater than for the U.S. population in general. The reasons for the discriminatory impacts of the virus appear obvious. The most vulnerable of residents in nursing home, the majority of workers in slaughter houses, and a disproportionate number of prisoners are racial minorities. There is no reasonable explanation for these socioeconomic disparities other than systemic racial discrimination. To argue otherwise is to defend the political ideology of “white supremacy.”

Perhaps I am wrong, but I simply refuse to believe that a majority of people in the U.S. are white supremacists. However, I do believe the majority of people in the U.S. have been willing to accept systemic racial discrimination rather than pay the economic costs of racial equity and justice—at least as long as it’s not too blatant. Whenever racial bigotry becomes too blatant, as in the case of police killings of unarmed black men, white and black Americans alike take to the streets in protest. Blatant racism is intolerable. But when things settle down, most people want things to return to “normal”—which means back to systemic discrimination.

Most Americans haven’t been willing to allow the assurance of equity and justice for all to interfere with their individual economic self-interests. Over the long run, systemic social and political unrest degrades and destroys economies, as we have been experiencing in the U.S. However, the economy doesn’t care much about the long run. The economy reflects our impersonal, individual, self-interests, which are inherently short run in nature. Restoring the productivity capacity lost through centuries of discrimination would cost far more than can be recovered within the typical corporate planning horizon of five to seven years. Individuals, including investors in corporations, don’t live forever and the future is always uncertain. There are few if any significant economic costs of discrimination other than the periodic losses of economic productivity that become apparent only during reoccurring protests that disrupt of business activities. Following the inevitable disruptions, there is an urgency to return to “business as usual.” Any nation that is driven by individual, economic self-interest will invariably give employment, income, and economic growth priority over equity and justice for all.

The disproportionate number of African Americans and other racial minorities in prison are not there because they are inferior people or innately unable to abide by the rules of civil society. They are disproportionately in prison because they have not had an equal opportunity to participate in the economy, which is a result of not having an equal opportunity to fully participate in society. To claim they have an equal “right” to participate is far different from saying they have an equal “ability” to participate—or even an equal “opportunity” to acquire the ability to participate. More than half of all workers in animal slaughter and meat processing plants are Hispanic or Black, because fewer others are willing to accept these unpleasant, difficult, and dangerous jobs. The large numbers of minorities dying in nursing homes are a reflection of decades of lack of equal access to adequate healthcare or healthful diets and lifestyles necessary for vitality and longevity. Like George Floyd and those before him, these are all victims of systemic racial and cultural discrimination.

This problem is certainly not new to the United States. In 1776, the founders on this nation knew that slavery was wrong and that the government they established was responsible for ensuring equal right for all people. They wrote the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” Later, in drafting the current U.S. Constitution, they debated the issue of slavery but took no position in the final document either for or against slavery.

The founders gave individual economic self-interest priority over the acknowledged responsibility of government to ensure liberty and justice for all in drafting the Constitution of the United States. The individual state legislatures concurred by ratifying the Constitution. The economy of the new nation, from the cotton plantations of the South to the textile mills of the North, was then built on a foundation of institutional slavery. Thankfully, the institution of slavery eventually was ended in the U.S.—conceding to nothing less than a bloody Civil War. Amendments were added to the Constitution abolishing slavery and attempting to ensure freedom from racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the systemic racial discrimination that was born in slavery has survived and now flourishes—in spite of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continuing sacrifices of many livelihoods and lives in the quest for racial and social justice. The majority of our government officials today, both Democrats and Republicans, seem to have the same basic priorities as those who initially drafted the Constitution. The voters who elect and continue to reelect them seem to reaffirm those priorities.

That being said, there is reason to hope the current confluence of crises will result in a fundamentally different outcome this time. As in the time of the Civil War, the cultural divide has now grown so wide there can be no return to “normal.” A continuation of the COVID-19 crisis is virtually certain. A second wave likely will result from those who gave reopening the economy and resuming recreational activities priority over public safety—returning to the pursuit of individual, economic self-interests. A third wave likely will result from those who took to the streets in protest of the George Floyd killing—challenging the wisdom of a return to individual, economic self-interests. This new round of protesters are multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multicultural—reflecting a broad social movement that transcends racial inequality. Prior to the pandemic, climate change seemed to be a crisis that could fundamentally transform society. The economic implications of climate change are similar to those of systemic racism. Others the economic devastation caused by periodic events, the impacts of climate change are primarily long-term and thus of little economic significance. Superimposed upon the others is a crisis of political leadership—or the lack thereof. With the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, the future of our democratic republic is clearly in peril.

In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address he said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Once again, we are living though a time of crisis that will fundamentally reshape the future of this nation—for either better or worse. Hopefully, we can resolve the current crises short of another civil war. Regardless, this time there can be no going back to “normal.” If we fail to resoundingly reaffirm the social and moral principles upon which this nation was founded, the nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality will not have endured.

In this time of crisis, those who read the Bible, rather than use it for a photo prop, might do well to reread Matthew 35-40: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

John Ikerd

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