Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 7: COVID-19 and Racism

Hi everyone!

Every week since we started this newsletter we learn more than the week before. The two of us talk constantly about the power of saying “I just don’t know anything about that yet, but I’m so excited to learn more” and how the accountability of this group helps us remember to say that. There’s something really freeing about not having all the answers and we’re so thankful for this community that asks us to keep digging for those answers, even when things get uncomfortable or tiring. That being said, we’re both moving and both have new responsibilities with work and school so, for the sake of sustainability, we are going to start hosting dialogues on a bi-monthly basis, rather than weekly. This will allow us to have longer dialogues twice a month rather than shorter dialogues each week (and it will give groups time to dig a little deeper AND makes it more feasible to have guest speakers in the coming weeks). We will continue to send newsletters with resources every week though! 

We’ll keep running our anonymous question form for anyone interested. And we’ll keep updating our website with an archive of all our newsletters to make it easier to share with friends (still calling for help from anyone who knows how to make a WordPress site cute!). And if someone forwarded you this newsletter and you want to sign up to get newsletters directly, you can do so here

As we seek to be anti-racist in our learning, we have to remember that the ultimate goal is a safer, more just world where Black, Indigenous, People of Color have ample + equitable opportunity to thrive. What we mean is, the end goal cannot be our own moral and intellectual development, the end goal must be an end to the disparate harms caused by systemic oppression. This week, as COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing across the US, we wanted to draw our attention to the racial disparities of the pandemic’s impact.

When we talk about systemic inequity, we often have a gut reaction to clarify something like “but this is hurting me too!” and before we get there, we want to clarify that of course COVID-19 is shaping all of our lives to some degree. Obviously, the pandemic and its related restrictions are affecting all of us in some way or another; however, the United States’ particular landscape of racial and class inequities inevitably make Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant communities most vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the disease. We can acknowledge that those of us who are white and middle class are also struggling and that the disease itself does not discriminate based on race, AND we can acknowledge that there are far greater safeguards in place for those of us who are white and/or have some level of generational wealth (and by that, we don’t mean the 1%, we mean – did your parents own your house growing up? Do you have the resources to pre-pay two weeks’ worth of basic living expenses?). 

As we talk about the larger systems that perpetuate racism and the individual actions that uphold it, race can feel very abstract and intangible. However, we know that racism manifests in very real, nefarious ways, from the education system and inequitable funding, to mass incarceration and police brutality, to the healthcare system and COVID-19 disproportionately affecting and killing Black people. 

There are myriad ways that COVID-19 is harming our communities, many of them rooted in policy that prioritizes economic gains over individual people, especially poor people, and especially poor people who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color. Here are just a few notable ways that racism has exacerbated the inequitable effects of COVID-19:

We are making note of these disparities because we think it’s crucial to be loud about injustices, particularly those that are stratified by race. It would be a disservice to our intention to practice anti-racism to not mention this historic moment, the disparate experiences of people of different races with this moment, and the explicit role that systemic racism is playing within it. 

Systemic v. systematic

What does systemic mean?
Systemic describes something inside a system or affects all parts of a system. It can also mean something is deeply ingrained within the entirety of a system. For example, if an illness is systemic, it is present throughout the entire body. Organs may be affected differently, some may suffer more damage than others, but the entire body is affected by the presence of this illness.

What does systematic mean?
Systematic relates to an action that is done according to a system or organized method. Systematic is used when a behavior – however unintentional it may be – is so habitual that it’s almost as though it was orchestrated with the purpose of fulfilling a system’s needs. For example, Emily loses her car keys after getting home from the grocery store so frequently, it is almost as though she has a systematic pattern of forgetfulness.

What’s the difference?
Systematic can refer to a single action by a single actor or organization. Systemic implicates everyone who is part of the system. If the “system” is western culture, calling racism systemic implicates ALL of us who participate in western culture (spoiler alert: you are getting this email which pretty much guarantees you participate in western culture).

Why does it matter?
Systemic racism doesn’t exist as a result of a single system. Systemic racism IS the system. Calling racism systemic means that the system itself perpetuates and reproduces racist beliefs and practices. It means that even if there were *zero* “racists” present, the system itself would still disproportionately harm certain races. 

For example:

Again, because we all exist within the larger systems that perpetuate systemic racism (education, healthcare, housing, the criminal legal system, how food gets from farmers to our tables, just to name a few), we have all participated in some level of systemic racism. Everyone has. It’s not productive to beat ourselves up about our complicity in systemic racism, but now that we know we’re participants, we can’t turn away from it either. Just like the first step of curing an illness is to diagnose it and explore what it is and how it ticks, the first step of dismantling the systems that perpetuate racism is to see the racism, name it as racism, and explore the ways that racism has affected our lives and our communities. 


As we’ve been reading, COVID-19 has been disproportionately impacting Black people and hurting low-income communities at alarming rates. As such, we wanted to focus our donations and monetary support this week on these affected communities. Black Entertainment Television partnered with United Way to “support and amplify relief efforts in [BIPOC] communities that have been severely impacted by the pandemic.”  The Fund will disburse grants to local community-based organizations, with a focus on families in need of food assistance and emergency support services.

We also wanted to highlight last week’s financial action one more time, as prisons across the country are ravaged by COVID-19Prisons and jails present a massive risk to all of our health, particularly during a pandemic. Emily has been working with a South Carolina group that advocates for the humanity of people who are incarcerated and who specifically is focusing on getting bars of soap and pulse oximeters into prisons through the coronavirus surge. Please consider donating via PayPal to heartsforinmates@gmail.com or via Cashapp at $heartsforinmates or $h4inmatesrebirth (if you need the donation to be tax deductible). If you would rather send a check, you can mail it to:
Hearts for Inmates
PO Box 50754
Greenwood , SC 29649


On July 6th, SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a department under ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement) issued guidance for the fall semester that stated that international students attending online-only programs must leave the United States. Furthermore, for schools operating in a hybrid mode, international students must not take a fully online course load, and if they are, they must leave the United States. SEVP also stated in their guidance that if for some reason schools transition to an online-only course mode for the fall mid-semester, international students will be forced to leave the US.
This is in explicit opposition to their stance for the spring and summer semesters, which allowed international students to temporarily take a full load of online courses. This meant that when universities abruptly transitioned to distance learning due to the COVID-19 emergency, their immigration status wasn’t affected. 
Falling out of status can have serious consequences. It leaves international students open to deportation and can create a situation whereby a student could never regain entry to the United States. These regulations have been in effect for almost two decades now under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, current times are NOT a normal circumstance.

This week, we’re asking you to do two things: 

  1. Call your representatives! Use the govtrack.us portal to find your representatives and then just give them a holler. There is a REALLY useful script that starts on the bottom of page 5 of this document. Calling your representatives is uncomfortable AND it is helpful. Here is a quote from one of our readers (hi Rachel!!), who has worked in the offices where these calls are answered, so Emily kind of defers to her as the local expert on making calls to your reps. (thanks Rachel!!!) –  “Peoples calls are so so so important. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. It is a numbers game. Interns literally input issues into a spreadsheet by county and give it representatives to make decisions. People think it doesn’t make a difference but it 100 percent does. I say this from experience as someone who was once an intern typing into a spreadsheet!!!! Thank u for coming to my ted talk
  2. Write to your current/former university! Some schools are remedying this by issuing “in-person” classes of one student each in the off chance that schools go online. You can model this template and explain to your university why it would be a travesty for international students to risk deportation in such uncertain times (the money! The job potential! All the hard work! The risk of not being able to get back into the US!). You can also offer that you’d encourage them to publicly show support for Harvard and MIT in this lawsuit as they sue on behalf of international students being asked to leave the country if all classes are forced online this fall. 

Primary Resource:

  • LISTEN (or read the transcript): The Racial Contract – Adam Serwer talks about how the national response to Covid shifted once the US realized who was getting sick (read: that Black and Latinx people were disproportionately sicker and more likely to die of covid than their white counterparts). We’ve shared this podcast in the “other resources” section before but it feels particularly pertinent this week!

Supplemental Resources:

Other Resources We Loved This Week

  • The BREATHE Act was launched this week! Written by activists from the Movement for Black Lives and sponsored by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ayana Pressley, the BREATHE Act is a visionary bill that aims to “divest our taxpayer dollars from brutal and discriminatory policing and invest in a new vision of public safety”
  • Our former classmate Marisa Wojcikiewicz started a petition to change the names of Beaufort County’s gated communities to something other than “plantations” and this weekend she was featured in the New York Times!! The fight continues, but color us impressed that our tiny little island is being noticed at a national level. 
  • And this incredible interview with Jia Tolentino as she talks about the lessons of 2020. It’s crude, it’s honest, it’s disheartening and warm at the same time. 

IN THE NEWS: Something Else We Think Is Important This Week

Last week, the Supreme Court Ruled that About Half of Oklahoma is Native Land – it would be a mistake not to mention an absolutely historic ruling regarding land sovereignty and tribal rights this past week. In a 5-4 split decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma ultimately held that land historically run by the  Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations is within the tribe’s jurisdiction. This means that tribes will have jurisdiction over the laws of the land, including prosecuting crimes that are committed on the reservations. These reservations were parcels allotted to the tribes following Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, during which the US government spurned a genocide, approximately 60,000 Native Americans to walk thousands of miles, from Georgia to Oklahoma, through the winter, wherein nearly 10,000 people died on the journey (imagine one out of every six people you knew dying). 

We will dig deeper into the history of Indigenous people and colonial forces in the months to come, but for this week, we recommend listening to This Land, a podcast recommended by (yet another, different but equally brilliant) Rachel (who also has a newsletter worth subscribing to – White People Weekly!). Seriously, subscribe and listen. Emily binged it all this weekend so she would love to chat through it with someone!

We also recommend downloading the Whose Land app that uses GIS technology to identify Indigenous Nations, territories, and communities across North America. There is power in knowing whose ancestral ground you’re on. 

Finally, we leave you with a quote from Dr. William Barber in Poverty Is the Virus That Puts Us at Covid-19 Risk (one of our secondary resources this week).

If the new coronavirus reveals the deeper moral crisis in our country, it may also serve to unite us in our commitment to become a democracy that works for all people — rich or poor. This has been our response in the best moments of our American story. May it be our resolve today.

As we move into this week, let’s not let our feelings of despair or shame turn us to denial. Let us open our eyes to the myriad moral crises that coronavirus is exposing. Let us commit to our communities in a new, deeper way. Let us do the small big things that we can to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable neighbors – wear a mask, avoid gatherings, wash our hands, etc. Yes, keep the energy around anti-racist learning up, and yes, keep the pressure on our elected officials and yes, keep talking about racism and racist policy and ways your school/job/hobbies can be safer and kinder to friends of color. AND, do your small part to keep your small circles a little safer in the less public, less interesting ways. We can do this work.

Stay healthy, socially distant, and hydrated! We are cheering for you.

In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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