Journalist urges audience to ‘opt in’ to confront ‘twin plagues’
Award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and documentarian Soledad O’Brien said the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice are “twin plagues,” with the pandemic magnifying longstanding inequalities that need to be confronted.
“You have to opt in to making change,” she said. “If you sit and wait for things to happen, it just won’t happen.”
O’Brien was the keynote speaker at the Oct. 11 community assembly that kicked off U-M’s monthlong Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit.
The summit features events highlighting the university’s commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment. The theme this year is, “Parallel Pandemics: Addressing Structural Racism in the Age of COVID-19.”
Along with O’Brien, the community assembly included remarks from university leaders, a panel discussion, and spoken-word and musical performances by students. It was livestreamed on U-M’s website and on YouTube.
O’Brien, CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions, anchors and produces the weekly syndicated television program “Matter of Fact.” She has anchored news shows on CNN, MSNBC and NBC, hosted projects for Fox and A&E, and contributed to a variety of other networks and programs.
O’Brien said while it’s challenging to navigate the parallel pandemics of racism and COVID-19, it’s important to not let COVID-19 lessen people’s commitment to diversity.
She also said it’s impossible to overestimate the impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color. Centuries of deep-rooted racism have negatively affected housing, education, wealth, employment and other areas for those communities, she said, leading to enduring health inequities that the pandemic exacerbated.
She noted that while African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 33 percent of patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19. Black men are six times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white men, she said, and Black women are four times more likely to die than white women.
“Certainly, injustice preceded the pandemic, but COVID-19 has unveiled this injustice,” she said.
’Brien said the May 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police brought widespread attention to a problem that many African Americans have known about for a long time. She said Floyd’s death, which came on the heels of other high-profile police killings of Black people, seemed to open more people’s eyes to racial injustice. She said it served as a catalyst for change and forced people to rethink what they consider normal.
“We understand that if action isn’t taken, if we don’t confront injustice and structural racism and disparities that have made the pandemic so deadly to so many, we’re not going to survive as a whole,” she said. “The intersection of COVID-19 and the devastating cost of structural racism has caused that.
“We have an opportunity, I think, to make change and bring change, and commit to making change.”