“How did we get here, and how do we use this to move forward so we aren’t running backwards?”
That was Dr. Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, speaking in the video trailer for The Pandemic Divide: How COVID Increased Inequality in America, a forthcoming* book from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University via Duke University Press. Moreover, it was the theme of the first day of the eponymous conference, The Pandemic Divide, a gathering hosted by the Cook Center to highlight research both in the book and by outside scholars regarding COVID-19 and its outsized effects on already marginalized communities in the United States.
Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the conference will span three days and feature a range of speakers, posters, and discussions around the health, financial, social, and educational effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The day began with opening remarks from the book’s editors—Dr. Gwendolyn Wright, director of strategic initiatives and collaborations at the Cook Center; Lucas Hubbard, associate in research at the Center; and Dr. William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., the Center’s Founding Director and the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University—and the screening of the book’s video trailer.
From there, the morning continued with featuring speakers who authored the first two chapters of the book. The morning featured Dr. Joe William Trotter Jr., the Giant Eagle University Professor of History and Social Justice at Carnegie Mellon University, discussing the history of the overlapping components of labor, housing conditions, and disease in America.
Then, Dr. Bentley-Edwards, associate director of research and director of the health equity working group at the Cook Center (and associate professor of general internal medicine at Duke University), and Dr. Paul Robbins, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University, spoke on how the preexisting health conditions of black Americans led to their disproportionately deleterious COVID-19 outcomes. “While some people think race is a factor,” Robbins said, “it’s actually that *racism* is a factor.”
The two presentations sandwiched a roundtable discussion entitled “Dispatches from the Frontline: Nurses and COVID-19,” that featured Duke hospital nurses (Faith Waters, Amelia Wright, Megan Smith, Melodi Langlois and Gloria McNeil) sharing their experiences during the past two years. “We all learned together,” said McNeil, about the ever-changing nature of the pandemic. “What we did the first wave we didn’t do the second wave. What we did the second wave we didn’t do the third wave.”
The panel received multiple standing ovations for their service and sacrifice during the period; Dr. Darity, in the Q+A session, put it thusly: “I don’t usually try to speak for everyone, but I think we all want to experience our great admiration for your skills, knowledge, and empathy.”
Our nurses from “Dispatches from the Frontline”
The afternoon featured two sets of researchers not involved with the book project who nevertheless provided valuable insights into areas of interest. First, Sumie Okazaki—professor of applied psychology at New York University—and Helen Zia—author, journalist and activist—delivered insights into the Asian American experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s not just that these things are happening, it’s that they are invisible,” said Zia, of the discrimination and hate this population faced.
While they highlighted the striking degree to which Asian Americans experienced abuse and attacks in the past two years—a disproportionate amount of which was inflicted on women—they also noted a glimmer of optimism: that for both blacks and Asian Americans, experiences of racial discrimination was associated with cross-racial activism. In particular, Zia invoked the historical example of Frederick Douglass’ activism on behalf on Wong Kim Ark as a template for this solidarity. After all, Zia said, “the word ‘community’ has ‘unity’ in it.”
Okazaki and Zia were followed by Sushmita Subedi, a senior researcher in the Education Systems program at the American Institute for Research. Subedi led a workshop on K-12 education during the pandemic, collecting powerful anecdotes from educators, parents, and community members in the audience who all witnessed the challenges of this era firsthand. Noting a slew of depressing statistics regarding learning loss, teacher and staff burnout, the digital divide, and more—particularly in low-income schools—Subedi, while optimistic, was unequivocal in stating that “the framework for public schooling has got to change.”
The evening concluded with a keynote address from Dr. David Satcher, the former U.S. Surgeon General under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as the Founding Director and Senior Advisor of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse College. In keeping with the themes of the day, Dr. Satcher noted a 2006 report he had authored that summarized the health effects of eliminating disparities in the preceding century: In 2000 alone, Satcher wrote, 83,500 fewer black deaths would have occurred.
Notably, Dr. Satcher was introduced by Mrs. Billye Suber Aaron, the civil rights champion and namesake of the Center’s Young Scholars program, who came to Durham for the conference. Earlier in the day, Mrs. Aaron said that the program had reminded her of her high school days in Texas, learning Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem The Black Man’s Claim. The poem ends thusly:
Out of the wilderness, out of the night,
Has the black man crawled to the dawn of light;
He has come through the valley of great despair–
He has borne what no white man ever can bear–
He has come through sorrow and pain and woe,
And the cry of his heart is to know, to know!
Tuesday was a reminder of the desperation of this pandemic and the dark times these communities have faced. But mostly, the theme of the day—and the conference overall—is of looking forward, and asking two key questions: After 30-plus months of a pandemic, what do we now know? And, more importantly, what do we do with this knowledge?
The conference continues Wednesday at 8:30 A.M. Please join us at the Washington Duke Inn or follow the livestream on the Cook Center’s YouTube channel. (The full video from Tuesday can also be viewed here.)
* Through Friday, October 28, order your copy of The Pandemic Divide using code “FL22” for 50% off.*
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University