America’s Two Pandemics: The Coronavirus and Systemic Racism

by Nick Gier

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and Georgia Democratic Senate candidate, gave a eulogy entitled “Let My People Go” at Rayshard Brooks’ funeral. Brooks was the black man shot in the back by an Atlanta police officer.  A drunk white man would have been escorted home, but an inebriated black man is offered no such courtesy.

GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler has called on her opponent to condemn Black Lives Matter for, allegedly, inciting violence and being anti-Semitic. Warnock refuses to take Loeffler’s bait, saying that she is “giving in to narrow impulses of tribalism and bigotry” and being “on the wrong side of history.”

Loeffler, whose net worth is said to be $500 million, was recently cleared of charges of insider trading. She is co-owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s basketball team and she is outraged that the players have chosen to put Black Lives Matter on their jerseys.

Catherine Engelbert, Commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association, supports the players, and she vowed to “continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.” The players and their union have requested that Loeffler be removed as owner of the team.

In his sermon Warnock warned his masked audience about the dangers of the coronavirus and how it has ravaged people of color much more than others. But he said that there was an equally lethal virus, one that has been around for 400 years. He calls it COVID-1619, the date on which 50 African persons disembarked in Jamestown and were enslaved by the settlers.

Warnock expands on this metaphor: “Some thought that the virus had been defeated. That we had cultivated herd immunity in the days after the Civil War. Indeed, it seemed to go into remission during Reconstruction. But in a few years, it mutated into Jim Crow segregation and came back with a vengeance. Some thought the nation had been sufficiently vaccinated by the civil rights movement.”

Like COVID-19, COVID-1619 also kills. Enslaved blacks were murdered indiscriminately and those on the sugar plantations of Louisiana were worked until they died. (It was cheaper to replace them.) After the Civil War, lynching took the lives of nearly 4,000 black men and boys, and there have been millions of premature deaths because of abject poverty and poor health care.

According to an analysis published in The Huffington Post (9/2/15), “12 percent of black people who commit a crime but less than 2% of white people who commit the same crime eventually go to prison.” There are dozens more studies proving systemic racism.

We must also face the sad fact that black men are killing their own out of the frustration and desperation born of institutional racism. White men, presumably because of their own demons, commit suicide at nearly three times the rate of black men, but we don’t say that they are therefore bad and unredeemable.

For all their claims to enlightenment, white Europeans also discriminate against their colored citizens, for example, Indonesians in The Netherlands and Blacks in Great Britain. They have higher incarceration, unemployment, and poverty rates, but low numbers of homicide. The main reason is that guns are not available for them to kill each other.

Native Americans are four times more likely to be homicide victims, mostly by their own hands. They and their black brothers and sisters are people burdened by centuries of white oppression and discrimination.

Native Americans also suffer from a metaphorical virus, let’s call it COVID-1620, the date the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Local natives helped them through their first winter but that favor was definitely not returned. Just as horrible is the fact that millions of those indigenous to the Western Hemisphere were wiped out by real viruses introduced by white Europeans.

The parallel between COVID-19 and COVID-1619/1620 breaks down when Rev. Warnock speaks of a vaccine against the virus of systemic racism. Continuing the comparison would imply that an anti-racism vaccine would make us tough enough to tolerate this invidious disease.

We, however, don’t want to live with it; we don’t want to have to come up with a better vaccine every year. No, we have to eradicate it entirely. We need to search our hearts and souls to eliminate our implicit biases, the smallest hints of discrimination against people different from ourselves.

Nick Gier is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho. Read all his columns on civil rights at Read all of his columns at Email him at

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