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We Are Not Together

Published: April 10, 2020

Dear Editor,

A few days ago, I spoke with an African American friend whom I met as a member of a Methodist Bible study I attend in San Francisco. He and I are both materially poor, yet I have access to many resources granted by true believers. While on the phone, he related to me that he was walking around San Francisco in search of a restroom to respond to basic human biology.

Water itself, needed to flush toilets and wash hands, has become a commodity, not a social resource.

In many ways, the structural craters opened by the coronavirus expose how African Americans are still wading in the waters, after having run away from the plantation. The virus is also exposing to many other people the same sense of terror and anxiety that United States municipal, state, and federal policies have been visiting on people of color for centuries. Since the end of World War II, the United States has invested in military machinery on a scale that has never been seen in world history. Every dollar that was not spent on community infrastructure, scientific preparedness for pandemic response, and other elements of caring for members of our society now seems to yield a rather poor “return.” I am bewildered to hear so little public dialogue about how our fiscal and social irresponsibility are directly related to our lack of preparedness and know-how to respond to the virus.

I am neither your Negro nor your scapegoat. I am not responsible for the reckless endangerment of the domestic population brought on by all the political parties in power for the duration of my lifetime. I did not share in the monetary rewards of those who structured our academic, scientific, and healthcare systems based on overriding concerns for money rather than people.

Suddenly, society claims I am the "equal" in social responsibility for this virus?

Equal? Since when?

To suggest that African Americans – as of yet still not made whole for generations of free labor – now share an equal responsibility for managing this crisis is an egregious rewriting of history. Many White communities – including the Religious Society of Friends – have a skin color that will shield them from the full fury of the virus. Our responsibilities for social distancing are not equal.

The color of White skin is a face mask that I cannot wear! No manufacturing process on earth can grant me this highly prized resource.

African Americans – especially farmers – own less land today than they did at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the present moment, many families of color are only at the beginning of the generations-long “return” to their status before the Great Recession. The Institute for Policy Studies , supporters of the Poor People’s Campaign, has noted that withinin a few decades, African Americans might actually have a net wealth of zero – nothing

Yet, we're "equal" partners in the crisis?

If we're so equal let's insert my name on the deed to your house! I'll wait while you get a pen.

Ah, perhaps now you've changed your mind?

I was never intended to be your social equal!

We are an individualistic society to the core; I will not pretend we are suddenly "friends."

We are not together – for centuries Black shoulders have carried the very anxieties that now pulse through the minds and hearts of Whites.

We are not together – churches and commercial buildings stand empty while elders of color sleep on sidewalks; this screams your values.

We are not together – pacifists have begged and pleaded that we "study war no more" and, instead, fund education rather than defense contracts . . . And yet, it pains my heart, but even Friends refuse to discern their dependence on police and guns.

"These are all necessary," they say. "We need to be kept safe."

Oh, the irony!

Now an enemy attacks us for whom guns, bombs, and tanks are of no consequence.

African Americans have long tossed and turned in the nightmare of America. Now Whites, too, are drenched in sweat and shivering in fear, anxious that life might be snuffed out at any moment.

Whites, too, now wander the street, looking anxiously at any approaching figure as a potential threat.

The life you hoped for has fallen from heaven and shattered across a dull, gray sidewalk.

Welcome to America.

from Zae Illo, San Francisco Friends Meeting (4/8/2020)