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Commentary: There are two pandemics in America

The novel coronavirus pandemic and recent string of high-profile violent incidents against black people have painfully reminded us of long existing disparities in the way people are treated in this country.  

Monroe County is not immune to the inequity. None of us has to belabor the myriad statistics out there to know it. We can see it; we can feel it. Be it education, housing, employment, criminal justice, or health care, people of color have been experiencing vastly disproportionate outcomes for decades. These items, and more, are commonly referred to as social determinants of health. The undesirable outcomes are evidence of entrenched systemic and institutionalized racism.
Jerome Underwood is the president and CEO of Action for a Better Community. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Jerome Underwood is the president and CEO of Action for a Better Community.

At the inception of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) in 2015, there was healthy and heated debate regarding what should be the initiative’s guiding principles. We concluded that trauma, systemic racism, and community-building are the principles that should be the rudders of the work.

It is important, and timely, to point out that there were people who did not want trauma and racism highlighted in the endeavor. So adamant were they in their opposition, that they withdrew themselves from the initiative. We wonder what they must be thinking now. Like many others, they may be distracted by the social unrest that took place in Rochester and across the country. Conversely, much more of our collective focus should be on the events that precipitated the social unrest — yet another unjustified killing of an unarmed black man.

It is foolish to think that we can counteract poverty without directly confronting racism in all its forms. We want to emphatically state that racism is a primary antecedent to poverty. It is certainly not the only one, but for many people of color, it is the driving force to economic and social and emotional oppression. 
Daan Braveman is the president of Nazareth College. - FILE PHOTO
  • Daan Braveman is the president of Nazareth College.

Couple the disproportionate suffering and deaths of black and brown people from COVID19 with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; the murder of Breonna Taylor in her bed in Louisville; the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the weaponization of male blackness by Amy Cooper in Central Park in Manhattan, and you have unfortunate reminder after unfortunate reminder that racism is thriving.

RMAPI’s response will be to redouble our efforts on the guiding principles of trauma, racism, and community-building. All of our actions must be filtered through an equity lens — one where justice is something that is ingrained, as opposed to being an after-thought. We must be much bolder than we have been. The poor and oppressed demand that. We demand that.

We encourage all of Monroe County’s residents, organizations, and businesses to embrace a similar strategy so that we can make real transformational changes to improve the lives of people who have been systemically oppressed and marginalized for far too long.

Jerome H. Underwood is President & CEO of Action for a Better Community, a member of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group, and co-chair of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Daan Braveman is President of Nazareth College and co-chair of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.