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2020 Hutchins Forum Hosts Discussion on America’s Racial Reckoning

August 6, 2020 by Gracie Kreth
Henry Louis Gates

Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and PBS NewsHour co-hosted a discussion Wednesday afternoon about the coronavirus pandemic and the racial reckoning occurring in America and the impact these two simultaneous events will have on the upcoming election. 

Speaking from the Old Whaling Church at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Harvard Professor and event host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., opened the live stream discussion by stressing the importance of the upcoming elections in a year he called an agonizing inflection point in the country’s history.

“The upcoming election and the way we understand the pandemic in relation to the election will shape our health and wellbeing both as a nation and as individuals,” Gates said. 

Journalist and moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault then introduced the panelists; New York Times Opinion Columnists Charles Blow and David Brooks; Donna Bazile, political consultant and former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee; Georgia House Representative Vernon Jones; Political Analyst Shermichael Singleton; Lawrence D. Bobo, W.E.B. Du Bois professor, Harvard University and Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress. Hunter-Gault began by asking the panelists how they interpreted these parallel pandemics, and most spoke of racial inequality and injustices being largely responsible for how the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting people of color. 

“I hope this virus … creates a sense of shared fate and gives us a sense that we have to act collectively to solve these problems,” said Tanden. “When we fail to do so, that hurts people who are vulnerable, and in our society that group, because of White privilege, is people of color, who do not have access to the health care system, who do not have health care resources that Whites do.”

While Tanden and Bazile said they were heartened by the continued multigenerational and multiracial Black Lives Matter protests happening across the country, Brooks noted racial equity as key to a national recovery.

“Somehow in a fragmented society, race and racial equity has emerged as the keystone issue and if you don’t fix the inequality of wealth and income and all the other inequalities, somehow you can’t put America back together again,” Brooks said.

Singleton went a step further looking for a long term strategy to fix both issues, stressing the importance of more Black doctors and scientists and education around personal health and eating habits. That way, he said, the individuals may have stronger immune systems the next time the country faces a national health crisis.

The conversation turned to President Trump’s handling of the pandemic and Jones, the panel’s lone Trump supporter, defended the president’s preparation for the pandemic and handling of the crisis. Disappointed with Democratic leadership for several decades, Jones said he saw a “breakdown in the family, how we treat each other with respect, politicians not delivering on what people have been asking for years and years.

“The Democratic Party was the first to get the black vote but then left them behind after every single election,” Jones said.

But the rest of the panel disagreed. Blow compared Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak with President Trump’s of COVID-19.

“There’s 160,000 people dead, 60,000 in the hospital, 1,000 people dying every day,” Blow said. “This is real life, people did not have to die and now they are dead. A lot of that is because of the failures of this administration.”

Though supporting the Democratic Party, Bazile tried taking partisanship out of the debate, citing racial injustices that have been happening for centuries.

“This is not about partisanship,” Bazile said. “It’s the loss of faith in our institutions, loss of faith in the leadership of our country, and it’s people feeling that they have to step up and take their own self worth in order to get things done.”

Bobo added closing remarks agreeing with most panelists’ criticisms of the current administration’s coronavirus response. He criticized the president’s failure to institute a nationwide mask mandate, implement a substantial testing and tracing policy and said opening schools as cases rise is “borderline criminal.”

“We have to have a change if we want to fight this pandemic,” Bobo said.

Hunter-Gault closed the panel with the words of the late John Lewis, “Now is your turn to let freedom ring.”

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