Opinion | Dual pandemics: police brutality and coronavirus racial disparities

For 400 years, racist violence has been a cornerstone in upholding white supremacy.  After the civil unrest of the 1960s, U.S. President Lyndon B Johnson commissioned a study of the sources of the rebellions in Detroit and cities around the country.  The resulting Kerner Commission Report called for massive investments in cities improving schools, jobs and health, as well as addressing police brutality.  

Rather than investing to dismantle structural racism, our country has turned its backs on on majority-Black cities like Detroit, Highland Park and Benton Harbor and implemented 50 years of disinvestment through destructive policies of fiscal austerity.  We have cut jobs, closed schools, slashed pensions, shut off water and foreclosed on homes. We have mounted a war on crime, a war on drugs and have built a fortress of mass incarceration.  

Now, the coronavirus is ravaging African-American communities at the same time protests against police brutality fill the streets.  The enemy is the same, racism — express and structural.  We need to acknowledge these interconnections as we fight for a better future.  We are in a fight for our lives. And we all have roles to play.

The murder of George Floyd triggered righteous anger that has flowed into mass protests in streets across the nation.  The tragic racial disparities in deaths from the coronavirus crisis has triggered overwhelming grief and mourning, but not protests in the streets.  

There are clear differences.  The murder of Mr. Floyd is the latest in this nation’s long history of visible, external assaults on the collective Black body.  The coronavirus crisis is an internal assault on the collective Black soul.  The murder is a direct expression of explicit racism.  The health disparities of the pandemic are a no less direct, but a more hidden expression of structural racism.  These crises are interconnected and need to be viewed together.  After all, while Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the ravages of the Coronavirus, they have also been disproportionately targeted by police for social distancing citations—the new stop and frisk.

Historically, protest movements and mass uprisings are triggered by police violence during periods of heightened political consciousness.  The coronavirus tragedy is not the kind of event that typically triggers protests, but it helped create the heightened political consciousness about structural racism and white supremacy that has helped fuel them.  

Looking to the future, we must more consciously connect the fight against police brutality with the fight against structural racism and its impact on health disparities.  

Police violence must end. So must the hyper-policing of Black and Brown communities.  History shows us that police are the enforcement arm of white supremacy.  They have served this function since their origins in slave patrols and have often counted white supremacists among their ranks.      

But ending the pandemic of police brutality alone is not enough.  We need to ask: What will really make us safe?  Safety is linked to health, dignity and community.  Safety will come from better jobs, equitable access to education and health care, decent housing and combatting environmental racism.  This is the fight against structural racism that Detroiters have been waging for generations.  Factors fostering racial equity also address the social and economic determinants of heath that lie at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impacts on communities of color.   

These times call for transformative change.  Business as usual is what got us here.  Business as usual serves to perpetuate systems of racial hierarchy and white supremacy, not dismantle them.  We are all experiencing the tragic sense that we have seen this all before: Rodney King, Malice Green, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and now, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.  Our past protests have not achieved systemic change.  Despite generations of collective anti-racist struggle, white supremacy remains alive and well in the United States.    

This is the time for intentional, sustained, long-term efforts to end police violence, demilitarize police practices, and ensure meaningful civilian oversight.  This is the time for envisioning what safety truly means and realizing a world without state sanctioned body terrorism, police and prisons.  This is the time for intentional, sustained, long-term efforts to advance racial equity and dismantle structural racism.  This is the time to see that in fighting for one, we are advancing the agenda for the other.  Express racism is real.  Structural racism is real.  Both are deadly. 

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


A Yooper
Sat, 06/20/2020 - 10:14am

Dallas Police Department officers with military experience were significantly more likely to have discharged their firearm while on duty than cops with no military service, a study reported this month.Researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas examined the U.S. Armed Forces records of officers in the local police department and published their report in the Journal of Public Health on Oct. 3. They billed the study as the first of its kind and found that regardless of their deployment history, cops who were military veterans were more prone to shooting incidents.Officers who were deployed were 2.9 times more likely to have fired their weapons while on duty. Those who were not deployed were 1.94 times more likely to be involved in a shooting.
Applicants for police officer positions must have a more intense screening process including PTSD testing if deployed.

Michelle Mueller
Sat, 06/20/2020 - 11:42am

I was expressing this exact thing to my husband last evening after I returned home from a protest march in Albion: that the Black Lives Matter protests also needed to encompass the health disparities in communities of color that were brought abruptly to the attention of the country because of the pandemic. I think the names of those African Americans who have died of COVID 19 should be memorialized, printed on signs, and their photos shown right now, up there along with George Floyd's and Breonna Taylor's! What's happening is a double whammy to the Black community, one part just as horrific as the other.

A Yooper
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 8:09am

I totally agree.

Sat, 06/20/2020 - 2:53pm

Yes remove police from the black communities Nivana will certainly result! You certainly must have the evidence showing that police are the biggest threat and cause of homicide for young black men? It would be great if you could supply us with these facts!

Hypocrite Whitmer
Sun, 06/21/2020 - 2:40am

Idk what's more disgusting the Govenors blatant hypocrisy and her refusal to address it or her public displays of support for her baby killing profiting friends at Planned Parenthood. Either way she's been voted the worst Govenor in the Union & that's not by opinion but her ineot ability at leadership. Leftist ideologues like the governor have no place in politics, they have no class, respect or morals & no credible news to source.

Mon, 06/22/2020 - 9:52am

OK, I realize that more black citizens of Michigan have died in the pandemic, BUT doesn't it stand to reason that if the 83% of Detroit is black, that 83% of the patients would be black?? WHY doesn't anyone EVER address this fact??? I would NOT want to be a police officer anywhere because you have people of every ethnicity that don't use respect when asked by an officer questions. It also stands to reason that one of the facts of Michigan's high death rate is putting infected patients in our most vulnerable places, nursinghomes. WHY aren't people of every ethnicity if they are poor NOT on Medicaid??? It's available, why aren't they on it.

Clinton Gene Davis
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 12:24pm

None of this stuff is new; it’s as old as feudalism; it is feudalism. I have come to realize that base behaviors among people of European dissent is at the root of global conflicts. A study in the demoralizing effect of feudalism may help human beings come to the acceptance of the other. Until then, we will continue in the heartlessness of; feudalism.