top of page

Racism, Rioting and Justice in the Time of COVID

The powerful and terrible image of George Floyd’s long 9 minutes of suffering is emblazoned in our collective vision forever. We can never unsee it, and nor should we. We need to see it as it is - the natural progression of a more than 400 year old story in North America where the shackles of the enslaved over time became the handcuffs on not only George Floyd, but on millions of incarcerated Americans and Canadians. The police who murdered George Floyd are only enforcing a system of racism that all of us have colluded to maintain, and if you felt any surprise when watching this tragedy then you are only awakening now from a dream.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “…. a riot is the language of the unheard.”  The volatility then, of these protests and the accompanying rioting and looting, only reflect our deafness to the consequences of centuries of marginalization and exclusion of Black people. Anger and frustration at an entrenched system of racism have impelled those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society to risk their lives in order to be heard. They deserve our honouring of their anger and fear, and our understanding when they lash out in violence. There is a Nigerian proverb that says, "the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth".

Although violence and looting are at any time and place abhorrent, would the world be paying such close attention now if anger had not caught flame in the United States? “There is now, as there always is amidst protests, a loud call for the protesters to follow the principles of nonviolence. And that call, as (Ta-Nehisi) Coates says, comes from people who neither practice nor heed nonviolence in their own lives.

But what if we turned that conversation around: What would it mean to build the state around principles of nonviolence, rather than reserving that exacting standard for those harmed by the state?” (Ezra Klein). Perhaps, as Toronto activist Desmond Cole says, "The answer for the police is to stop policing and to start supporting and caring."

Unfortunately, “We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.” (Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of COPA’s heroes). And lest we as Canadians think this is an American issue - last fall, the Montreal police service released a report from three independent researchers which found that Indigenous people and Black people were four to five times more likely than white people to be stopped by police. In 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission revealed that “A Black person in Toronto is nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by police.” Even though “white people allegedly threatened or attacked police more often than Black people.” CBC reported that although Black people are only 8.3% of the population of Toronto, they represented 36.5% of fatalities involving Toronto police between 2000 and 2017. This is not news to Black communities, however, there IS a resistance to the allegations of systemic racism by many in the halls of power.

As Indigenous activist Myra Tait says in reference to racism against Indigenous people in Canada, “If you assume that Aboriginal people are less than…then anything is fair game to put us in our place. Policing is one of the tools used in the silencing.”

The cost of this entrenched system of racism, abuse of power, and dehumanization is high. Referring to a recent incident of racial profiling by police in Laval, Quebec, Will Prosper articulates: "You feel excluded, and you develop a frustration with a system that doesn't do anything for you. Nobody cares for you — that's the feeling we are having."  To reiterate: “…. a riot is the language of the unheard.”  

Beyond the frustration and sense of exclusion from society, is the very real fear that you will be the next target, and that no matter what you do or don’t do, the colour of your skin, your very identity as a Black or Indigenous person, puts you at risk of dying violently at the hands of an abusive and uncaring social system. It changes the way you live.

And then there is the exhaustion – from worry, fear, anger, and the constant effort of trying to explain it all to people who don’t understand or who don’t want to understand. This is a common theme for those living enmeshed in systemic racism: the sheer exhaustion of living in a system that considers them as less than human.

The Role of the Pandemic

The pandemic has only increased the pressure and prevalence of racism and “othering”, and at the same time has disproportionately affected already vulnerable and marginalized people. It has also exposed the ways in which entrenched biases and systemic racism actually manifest and hurt people.

Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a much faster rate than white Americans for many reasons related to the poverty and disadvantages that thrive along with systemic racism. And because of the enormous disparity in economic security, Black Americans have less access to health care and sick leave. “More than 1 in 5 Black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low Black homeownership rate.” (Washington Post)

Blacks in the USA and Canada are also more likely to work in industries that are the first to be adversely affected by quarantining. And in both countries they are more likely to be front line health care and service workers, and less likely to be able to work from home - thus more vulnerable to infection.

Canada did not even begin to collect data about race and death from COVID 19 until the end of April, which means that we are blind to the impact this is having on Black populations in Canada. Our blindness does not help us to understand and address the inequities inherent in systemic racism.

“What are we to make of the disappearance of Blackness from all of the reporting of COVID-19? Blackness seems to have been erased from the Canadian landscape in the repetitive “stay at home” narrative. Our faces are not seen in the daily news, we are not asked how our families are coping, even though it is well known that many Black people are on the front-lines as health care providers in numerous capacities, as cashiers and cleaners, in fact, more exposed to the virus. In addition to the realities of homelessness, Black people face evictions and lack of income support of any kind. Yet the increased deployment of police surveillance buttressed by a snitch line, harsh fines and other punitive legal enforcement methods issued across the country, will particularly target Black bodies. We are invisibilized in the discourses of protection and safety but hyper-visibilized in punitive discourses and practices invested in Black death.“ (Beverly Bain)

The blaming of others for the spread of Covid-19 has resulted in many racist attacks on Americans and Canadians of Asian descent (650 in one week alone in the USA). Among other factors that feed this blaming, is the rhetoric that comes from the highest levels of government in the USA.  The spread of disease has historically been entangled with racial discrimination toward those who are vulnerable, partly due to the fact that disease spreads more rapidly in impoverished communities where resources are scarce, and overcrowding is rampant.  

And a shocking research study by Amy Krosch in Scientific American, revealed the reluctance of white people to share resources with Black people. She found that “white decision-makers facing economic shortages may fail to see Black faces as fully human, implicitly justifying giving them less.” Racism assumes that some of us are more fully human than others and deserving of more resources, power, and privilege.

The exacerbating of racial inequity by the pandemic has hugely deepened the anger and frustration of those who are marginalized by racism. “A magnifying glass on inequality”, as Andreas Kluth calls it. Then George Floyd was murdered, and the whole world witnessed it, and what was unbearable became something that Black people and many others among us became unwilling to bear any longer. Brian Resnick in Vox says: “These two stories are linked. They are both public health stories. The link is systemic racism.”

Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist working on the Covid-19 response, tells Vox: “The forces that put many minority communities at risk during a pandemic have also put them at risk of police violence. Years of diminished economic opportunity, of marginalization, of structural racism, have led to both.”

And Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, a public health physician and assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, states that “It’s crucial when examining Toronto neighbourhood data on coronavirus cases that it’s understood why these disparities exist in the first place — which is systemic racism.”

Hope and Change

We NEED you to see colour. If you cannot or will not, how can you ever be an ally? How can you ever see that our skin marks us out as a threat? How can you ever lift the knee from our neck? How can you ever stop us dying?  - Obioma Ugoala

Is there any hope? At George Floyd’s funeral the Reverend Al Sharpton, a long-time civil rights activist said he is more hopeful today than ever. He said there is a difference in what is happening in these times, and he talked about seeing more young whites than young Blacks at some of the protests. Sharpton is not alone – the word hope is used often these days in the media, even by weary activists, writers, and thinkers too, like President Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And in fact, in the USA, 74% of people polled agree that Floyd’s death was an injustice based on racism. That is a huge shift.

This movement has captured the attention of the whole world. Because of a smartphone and social media, the horror of George Floyd’s death had witnesses all over the world. And many of those witnesses understood for the first time what deep injustice has been perpetrated on Black people. And they became allies, and they are demanding justice – not only for George Floyd but for all Black people.  

The question is, what does it mean to become an ally, and what is the work of an ally? Simply protesting is not enough. How will we teach our children, how will we act in the workplace? What else will we be willing to do in order to insist that justice is delivered? We who would be allies must realize that when we go back to our lives after the rioting ends, we will not be living the same reality as Black people in the USA and Canada who are exhausted from the life long struggle of everyday life in a society that sees them as less than human, as dangerous, as not equal in value to those who hold power and wealth.

As is often said, it begins with educating ourselves so that we understand how and why racial inequity is kept in place. Now that so many of us are awakening from that dream, let’s read and listen to the history of racism - that of both the United States and Canada. They are inextricably linked to each other, and to all of us.  

Bryan Stevenson says that “We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved Black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that Black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people. So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals.”

Let’s talk to each other and surface the stories we need to hear, like that of Ernest, a middle-aged Black man who owns his own business, but cannot work past dark in Myrtle Beach, SC in 2020 because it’s not safe for him. Or Samuel, a young Black man from Montreal, who was pulled by his dreadlocks out of a car he was a passenger in - for no reason, and then brutalized and insulted. And who now suffers intensely from anxiety: "At night, when I'm alone, it's in my head. I can't sleep. I need some help."

At COPA, we believe that working to create a more equitable and inclusive school, community and society starts by looking inward. This is a lifelong process that can bring about a fundamental change in our perspectives and attitudes. Everyone has a part to play in creating an equitable and inclusive culture, and everyone has the capacity to be an ally to those who have been marginalized and excluded.

It is important to accept that there is no magic bullet. Change that leads to equity and inclusion occurs as a result of a continuous process of learning, asking, exchanging, listening, explaining and trying. It requires patience, determination, and the knowledge that the work will never be finished, and we will make mistakes. Compassion for ourselves and others is absolutely essential as we move forward together.

About COPA:

COPA believes that all structures, institutions and relationships in our society are predicated upon inequity and social exclusion leading to the marginalization of children, women and other social groups. Inequity and exclusion are rooted in and perpetuated by a set of systemic, pervasive and discriminatory beliefs and practices.

Inequity and exclusion increase people’s vulnerability to assault, triggering and perpetuating a cycle of violence against children, women and all other marginalized social groups.

Therefore, all resources and activities created, developed, adapted and disseminated by COPA aim to break the cycle of violence against children, women and all marginalized social groups. The goal is to promote positive change through reflection, learning, skill and knowledge-building, by changing attitudes and beliefs, and by changing social structures that contribute to perpetuating the cycle of violence.


bottom of page