The following statement is attributable to Kyle Bragg, President of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service workers union in the country, representing a majority Black and immigrant workforce:
The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the Central Park incident stand as stark examples of the harsh reality of the brutality and reckless disregard for Black life. Sadly, these events are not surprising but are especially painful as COVID-19 disproportionately rips through Black communities.
Unbridled racism in this country means that a Black person cannot jog, drive, stand in front of a store, or even bird watch without facing death or the threat of death. And recourse only comes when a video surfaces that creates enough anger to force the hand of the justice into action. This endless cycle of violence against Black Americans, followed by outrage and no lasting systemic change, must end. It is time for radical change to address the pervasive racism in policing, the criminal justice system, and the overwhelming economic disparities that allow this virus to lay waste to minority communities.
COVID-19 only compounds the long-existing crisis of over-policing and every day racism that Black Americans face, creating a cascading effect that results in ceaseless suffering. Just as over-policing exposes many Black Americans to increased risk, the resulting over-incarceration puts them at greater risk of exposure to deadly prison COVID-19 outbreaks.
For many Black Americans, their access to justice and humane treatment from the police is just as elusive as their access to health care and safe working conditions in the time of COVID-19. Nearly 80% of Black people in America work in service-sector jobs, many of them essential frontline workers. The cruel irony is that at a time when Black and Brown workers are literally saving the lives of millions of Americans by providing health care, clean environments, and other life-saving services, they are still facing discrimination in all facets of life. And as COVID-19 disproportionately sickens and kills Black and Brown communities, even public sympathy comes with strings attached, as the blame is put cynically on obesity and personal health and not the virus itself.
The entire nation is at a crossroads as COVID-19 has exposed longstanding disparities in who has access to health care, safe jobs, sick days, testing and vital services. The virus has also opened up a Pandora’s box of new disparities in how social distancing and mask-wearing are enforced and who has access to the technology needed to adapt to our new reality.
This crisis moment can provide a turning point in addressing racial disparities. We must win justice for those slain at the hands of the police and demand that systemic change happen in our lifetimes before more lives are lost. We also must fight for those who are dying from a virus that does not discriminate, but an economic system that does. We must make sure that everyone has access to the health care and safe working conditions that are needed to survive this horrible disease. We call on governments to collect and report racial, ethnic, and other demographic data on COVID-19 testing, treatment, and fatality rates just as we’ve demanded data on disparities in policing. And we must turn out to the polls in full force this November to elect a new President who calls for accountability from the police, will prosecute hate crimes at the highest level, and does not turn a blind eye to the death of thousands of Americans.
The health of our nation depends on how we protect one another regardless of race, immigration status or income. To emerge from this crisis stronger, we have to join together across racial lines to fight for racial equality.
With over 175,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.