Credit: Illustration by Chris Allen, BVN

Last Updated on March 22, 2022 by BVN

S.E. Williams

March 19 marked the second anniversary of Governor Gavin Newsom’s shuttering of the state to protect the health of Californians by attempting to control the spread and minimize the unprecedented impact of COVID-19.

It has been a harrowing two years since, as we collectively navigated a once in a century public health crisis.

I find it strangely ironic that second anniversaries are traditionally marked with a gift of cotton, symbolizing the creation of something strong and enduring. I believe this is our collective desire regarding how we move forward in this (hopefully) post pandemic era.

Yet, as I reflected on  cotton as symbolic of second anniversaries, I don’t  think it is an exaggeration to  acknowledge that African-Americans have a complicated history with this textile that began with the theft of Black labor that made cotton “king” and  foundational to the growth of America’s cotton industry and its impact on expanding the nation’s economy. Despite the wealth it built for the country, it is well recorded that Blacks were denied the benefits of their labor for generations and continue to suffer the consequences of Black people trapped in poverty with limited exit routes. 

This, among other systemic and institutional issues  related to racism, left the Black community extremely vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. This vulnerability collided with the raw brutality of police use of force (in relation to George Floyd) at a time when the nation was paying attention, and reignited a movement for systemic change aimed at righting generations of historical wrongs.

An African-American family picking cotton in a field near Savannah, Georgia in 1867 – two years after the abolition of slavery.Figure 7-3: Picking Cotton, Savannah, Ga, early Negro life by Launey & Goebel has no known copyright restrictions. (Source: courses.lumenlearning.com).

Much has changed during the previous 48 months that is certainly worthy of acknowledgement while at the same time, many things remain the same.

From a public health perspective there is little doubt the shutdown that began March 19, 2020, saved lives and the successful development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines, that became available nearly18 months later, was a game changer. The vaccines have fully protected many and also reduced the number of those who experience the deadliest forms of the virus. Despite this success however, there remains the ongoing challenge of encouraging the unvaccinated—including many in the Black community—to trust science and take the shot.

Regarding the COVID-19-hobbled economy—despite the current challenges of inflation—it is moving in the positive but the historic disparities that have existed through the nation’s history and remained consistently disparate during every economic recovery over time, are once again evident as we collectively struggle to find a new normal in hopes the worst days of the pandemic are indeed behind us.

On the upside, the minimum wage has increased, and wages are up overall while on the downside, inflation has neutralized the benefit of these additional dollars, dollars now also being further ladened by increasing gas prices.

Also, as noted by Governor Newsom in his recent State of the State address, California is leading the nation in job creation. He specified that about 25% of all jobs created in the nation occurred right here in California.

“[T]he seemingly universal dream of cotton’s immediate profit, one of the South’s lasting traditions, became normalized and engrained. And by the 1860s, that very tradition, seen as the backbone of southern society and culture, would split the nation in two. The heyday of American slavery had arrived.”

The Creation of the Cotton Kingdom

With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, something in this nation shifted. Was it driven by the unconscionable impact the pandemic had on the lives of people of color  added to the collective witnessing of the grotesque murder of George Floyd or the long food lines or people being unable to pay for other life sustaining  necessities, like water, utilities and shelter? Whatever the impetus, the nation could no longer pretend it did not see the intransient racial disparities or recognize the country’s shifting demographics or ignore how threatening that shift is being perceived by those with a White supremacist mindset.

It was a truth that grew loud, too real,  and too impossible to ignore. Vulnerability to the virus was initially marked by color with minorities being most vulnerable to the virus because many staffed front-line jobs, were among the first to be laid off, struggled without healthcare or access to healthcare facilities in their communities. Many lived in multi-generational households while many others were homeless. Also, those already impacted by food insecurity and/or living in food deserts experienced even greater difficulty accessing healthy foods.

In response, executive orders were issued, legislation was drafted and enacted, speeches were made, declarations passed, funding allocated, and  a rising hope that police reforms were possible, that solutions were at hand–all of this was fueled by a sense of cautious optimism. 

But, as California and the nation marks a second year since the onset of the pandemic, America appears ready to turn the page as the pandemic eases. But, what about the promises made to reimagine a different future for Blacks and other people of color in this country?

Attention has largely turned from the millions of Americans still fighting for economic security in a struggle that existed even before the onset of the pandemic—to another key driver of the nation’s economic engine—war, even if the war is not our own. 

The much-needed funding that House Democrats sought to undergird the nation’s struggling masses by providing things like universal childcare, child tax credits that proved to pull millions of children out of poverty, in-home support for the elderly and many other initiatives were abrasively blocked by the Republican party with the help of two enabling Democrats. 

Although 31 Senate Republicans voted against funding for Ukraine, while many others who refused to support additional investments in programs designed to aid this country’s poor, voted in support of $13.6 billion in funding for Ukraine. 

Although 31 Senate Republicans voted against funding for Ukraine, while many others who refused to support additional investments in programs designed to aid this country’s poor, voted in support of $13.6 billion in funding for Ukraine. (source: twitter.com).

In essence, on the one hand funding was denied to struggling communities while on the other hand money was generously allocated for use in another country where a struggling population is fighting for democracy and independence.

In the process America as always, married democracy with unabashed capitalism as many of those dollars will be spent purchasing weapons from U.S. companies. 

This is America’s not-so-subtle bait and switch where the altruistic battle for democracy in a foreign land works to obscure the need for righting failed democratic principles and values here at home while at the same time managing to further enrich American corporations.

We’ve seen this scenario play out again and again—whether it be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam or any other number of covert and/or proxy wars in little known places all over the world.

Another indication this country has moved on is we have moved away from discussions about voting rights, additional healthcare benefits, criminal justice reforms and the environment.

The conversations have shifted from a disaster that took the lives of more than a million Americans and devastated the lives of millions of other Americans to focus on an international tragedy. At the same time, crime has increased and we are beginning to hear the usual tough on crime rhetoric even as calls to defund the police are in many ways being answered with even more police funding.  

Admittedly, at the local, state and national levels there are many moving parts targeted at addressing many pervasive inequities. However, as the nation’s war industry heats up, we know what to expect… weapons and associated war paraphernalia are another substitute for the economic opportunities this country once enjoyed when “cotton was king.” This takes me back to my opening of this piece.

Today, cotton is no longer king but leveraging war to spur the nation’s economic engine continues to be a viable option and a tried and true way of changing the conversation for equity and justice at home. 

We should not allow America’s penchant for war—whether direct or indirect—to become another excuse for once again failing to right historical wrongs. In light of everything the Black community has experienced and rallied around over the previous two years we must not be distracted by war or allow our calls for equity and justice to once again be silenced or pushed aside for another time that for more than 400 years has yet to come.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

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S.E. Williams

Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. A longtime champion for civil rights and justice in all its forms, she is also an advocate for government transparency and committed to ferreting out and exposing government corruption. Stephanie has received awards for her investigative reporting and for her weekly column, Keeping it Real. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at myopinion@ievoice.com.