George Floyd memorial
Mourners pay their respects to George Floyd at a memorial in front Cup Foods, where he was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
Photo provided by Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Op-eds by Wellesley President and Faculty Address Health Disparities in COVID-19, George Floyd Death, and Riots

June 4, 2020

On May 25, just as the United States recorded 100,000 deaths due to coronavirus, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. The video of his death sparked protests and riots in all 50 states and a national conversation about police brutality, adding another dimension to the ongoing discussion about the systemic racism and the economic and health disparities laid bare by COVID-19.

President Paula A. Johnson released a statement and video on May 31 about Floyd’s death and systemic racism. “Racism is behind the killings of black people by police, just as it is behind the disproportionate loss of life in communities of color from COVID-19,” Johnson said. “Each is a different symptom of the same devastating scourge of racial injustice and inequality.”

In a CNN op-ed published the same day, Johnson wrote about the death of Rana Zoe Mungin ’11, a 30-year-old black social studies teacher who died of COVID-19 after having been denied testing despite showing symptoms of the coronavirus. “Our health system too often gives short shrift to women and people of color. Mungin was both,” Johnson wrote. “Although testing for the coronavirus might not have changed her treatment, as the standard practice was to triage patients based on their symptoms, we must still wonder whether she would have been met with less skepticism about the severity of her condition if she'd been a white man. That we will never know.”

“Is this the greatest public service we can offer? To help people understand something so self-evident as an execution, on video, in broad daylight? This is our public history, available at every library and through every search engine.”

Michael Jeffries, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics and associate professor of American studies

Johnson said that the pandemic serves as a reminder of what we stand to lose when diverse voices go unheeded, and she underscored that higher education needs to recommit to two essential tasks. “First, we must be ever-vigilant in our commitment to diversity and unflagging in our efforts to educate students from all walks of life. Second, we must do all we can to equip those students for effective civic engagement, to create the structural changes needed in our nation and the world,” Johnson wrote.

“Will we seek to return to the old normal that failed Mungin and so many others? Or will we aspire to do better? To choose justice, unity, and hope over greed, division, and despair? The stakes could not be higher.”

Two days prior, Michael Jeffries, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics and associate professor of American studies, wrote in the Boston Globe, “Police do not protect and serve the people. Prisons do not keep us safe. America is not a functioning democracy. Our health care system is immoral. White supremacy is a political system, not just an incorrect idea.”

“Absurd though it may be, somehow I feel folks like me are expected to catalog and translate all this fear and death with testimony and teaching. Or to document, again, the so-called hypocrisy in the measuring and condemnation of Black and white violence. Is this the greatest public service we can offer? To help people understand something so self-evident as an execution, on video, in broad daylight? This is our public history, available at every library and through every search engine,” Jeffries continued. “Are we supposed to make it more elegant? More personal? By crying poetry on the page, and on television, and appealing to white parents’ dreams for their children and anything else we think might generate empathy? In this way we stumble aimlessly among the ruins, lamenting the charred remains of the promises this country made.”

As some people began to criticize the riots, Kellie Carter Jackson, Knafel Assistant Professor of Humanities and assistant professor of Africana studies, wrote in The Atlantic, “Those who rebuke violent responses to injustice should ask themselves: How should the oppressed respond to their oppressors? How should the nation respond to political dissent? How do the oppressed procure power? Throughout history, black people have employed violence, nonviolence, marches, and boycotts.”

“Only one thing is clear—there is no form of black protest that white supremacy will sanction,” Jackson continued. “Still, black people understand the utility of riotous rebellion: Violence compels a response. Violence disrupts the status quo and the possibility of returning to business as usual. So often the watershed moments of historical record are stamped by violence—it is the engine that propels society along from funerals to fury and from moments to movements.”

“Many people are asking if violence is a valid means of producing social change. The hard and historical answer is yes,” Jackson wrote. “A revolution in today’s terms would mean that these nationwide rebellions lead to black people being able to access and exercise the fullness of their freedom and humanity.”