For Pandemic Pivot, Race Matters Too (OPINION)

Oct 15, 2020
10:18 AM

Salvation Army worker Brenda González, of Saugus, Mass., left, distributes food to an unidentified woman, center, while others impacted by the coronavirus wait in line, behind, at a Salvation Army center, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Chelsea, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON — Over the past six months at Lawyers for Civil Rights, requests for free legal support have more than tripled. The escalating numbers are a constant reminder that families are struggling, particularly in low-income communities.

Unable to pay the rent, many families call us for support because they are on the verge of homelessness. Others call to report police misconduct. Some immigrants are intensely worried that accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment may trigger deportation.

Access to free legal support is helpful —it means the difference between receiving an eviction notice or rental assistance— but we need to collectively acknowledge and address the day-to-day indignities and institutional neglect that people of color experience. In the current climate, recognizing our complex social reality is critical for institutions to effectively and meaningfully pivot to meet the needs of people of color and immigrants.

Far too many institutions have been slow to adapt —and tone deaf— to the concurrent and overlapping public health, racial justice and economic crises. For example, it took a major lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights and our allies to ensure that mail-in ballot applications were sent to each registered voter in Massachusetts. Additional advocacy efforts were needed to get the mail-in ballot applications translated and to expand the number of drop-boxes available to voters. In the midst of a global pandemic, when so many lives have already been lost, the electoral system should have pivoted to accommodate voters without being prompted.

The election arena is not the only one stuck on old ways of doing things. We can find red tape and Byzantine processes across many other fronts.

As the wave of unemployment hit Massachusetts, workers who had been laid off were only able to submit their claims in English. This effectively cut off vital resources to hundreds of thousands of households with limited English proficiency. It took a deliberate and intentional advocacy effort to get the unemployment platform translated into languages relevant to Massachusetts’  immigrant communities, including Spanish.

Turning to education, despite the digital divide —along pronounced racial and class lines— and the challenges inherent in remote learning, privileged parents are intensely worried about changes to the admissions process for Boston’s elite public schools such as the Boston Latin School. The proposed changes, sensibly dispensing with the traditional high-stakes test and focusing more on grades for this year, make sense during COVID-19. Yet, privileged parents are reluctant to pivot; they want to carry on with business as usual. This illustrates the vastly different lived experiences across zip codes: some families have the resources to withstand the ongoing crises while others struggle securing food and housing. Notwithstanding privileged outcries, modifying the admissions process is the right thing to do to help level the playing field, particularly in the current climate.

If we are still insisting on doing business as usual, despite COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder, we should revisit —and make relevant adjustments— to our priorities and practices. Right now, we simply cannot afford to recreate the power dynamics that tend to favor established and entrenched interests.

Calling for the exam school admissions process to remain the same during COVID-19 is just as out-of-touch with the reality on the ground as expecting everyone to file their unemployment claims in English. This tendency to ignore the lived experience of people of color is deeply harmful. It maintains the status quo concentrating resources and opportunities in the hands of predominantly white privileged people. It’s also discriminatory perpetuating historical —and racialized— inequities.

Now more than ever, institutional decision-making and policy proposals must account for people of color and immigrants who are facing complex challenges, including illness and death. We know this firsthand at Lawyers for Civil Rights because half of our staff experienced COVID-19 infection and illness. Some of my colleagues were hospitalized and had multiple family members on ventilators. We also experienced loss. In this manner, our circumstances reflect the devastating impact of the virus in diverse communities. With this brutal reality in mind, at Lawyers for Civil Rights, we are pushing with urgency for linguistically-appropriate, culturally-relevant, and technologically-applicable services and programs.

Socially-conscious pivoting requires us to think holistically. For example, focusing on the intersection of language access and pandemic relief, there is simply no excuse for English-only applications for public benefits and services. Struggling households should not face the added injury, indignity, and stigma of linguistic exclusion. Adding technology to the mix, translated applications should also be mobile friendly to account for the fact that many households don’t have internet access. We must also acknowledge that some people don’t know how to use communications platforms such as zoom, but they are comfortable making voice and video calls, sending text messages, and sharing images and documents on WhatsApp. Just presenting WhatsApp as an option can help close technological gaps in service delivery across many industries, including telehealth.

Socially-conscious pivoting also requires us to do more than superficial or performative anti-racist work. We have to go further than one or two well-meaning statements condemning racism. Such statements are nice and appreciated, but they must be coupled with concrete actions, including specific timelines, budgets, and goal-oriented benchmarks. Consider formalizing your commitment to be an anti-racist organization and incorporate this goal into your business plan or strategic plan. This alone would go a long way in changing the culture in your organization.

It is also critical to check all forms of paternalism and privilege at the door. Whitesplaining, mansplaining and turf wars can all happen through Zoom. Remember this is not the time for gatekeeping. We cannot stick to the usual or traditional way of doing things. We should also avoid the tendency to sideline smaller players or newer voices. We must work to center —and amplify— the voices of women and people of color. We must actively empower everyone, including people of color, immigrants, women, and youth, to help us devise creative and courageous solutions that can be brought to scale to help more families.

Collectively, we can change the lived experience of people of color and immigrants. We can start by incorporating a racially-conscious and socially-conscious lens to all our work.


Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. Twitter: @IvanEspinozaESQ.