The New Yorker Videos

How the Coronavirus Is Widening Economic Inequality

hg0088The Reverend Dr. William Barber, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, speaks with David Remnick about the societal divisions that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated.

Released on 4/10/2020

Transcript

00:00
[introduction chime]
00:02
[soft music]
00:07
The germ is one thing.
00:09
That's nature.
00:11
But the negligence
00:14
and refusal to act is another.
00:23
Tell me, what will you be preaching on Easter Sunday?
00:27
I'm wrestling with that right now.
00:31
I'm wrestling with the text, David.
00:33
And it's an interesting piece.
00:35
It says, while he was on the cross dying,
00:39
that other people got up out of the graves
00:42
and the sense in that story is that other people sacrificing
00:47
sometime causes us to stand up.
00:50
And so when we see these healthcare workers
00:53
for instance on the front line, and these grocery workers,
00:56
their sacrifices and some of them dying
00:59
is actually causing the consciousness
01:01
of this country to stand up.
01:03
I wanna talk about how this moment of pain,
01:06
it's like other moments of pain throughout history:
01:09
Slavery, segregation.
01:11
Sometime in the midst of pain,
01:13
somethin very unusual happens,
01:15
and that is the very moment that people get up
01:17
and nothing is the same afterward.
01:20
In some sense, you think it's possible
01:23
that everything that you've been trying to organize
01:25
in recent years, the Poor People's Movement
01:28
that is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.,
01:32
particularly in the last years of his life,
01:34
could get some impetus from the tragedy of the pandemic
01:40
and the politics surrounding it?
01:42
I do.
01:43
You have 140 million people poor and low wealth.
01:46
You have 62 million people working without a living wage.
01:49
You got all these people uninsured and underinsured.
01:52
And now this pandemic comes,
01:54
and what you could hide before you can't hide now.
01:57
And in addition, David,
01:59
what we're learning is you can't isolate the germs,
02:02
so you can't write a bill,
02:04
and you don't provide health care for everybody
02:07
and think the germ is just gonna stay over there
02:09
with the people that don't have health care.
02:11
You can't write a bill like they just did,
02:13
and say we're not going to cover 11 million
02:15
undocumented workers and think if they catch the virus,
02:18
it's gonna to stay over there.
02:19
So there's something that we'll learn,
02:21
this pandemic is teaching us a hard lesson.
02:26
We have a saying: Everybody has a right to live.
02:28
We've changed it now.
02:29
Everybody has a right to live. If they don't, we don't.
02:32
For instance, if a worker right now is sick,
02:35
they don't have sick leave, they don't have insurance,
02:37
they feel the symptoms,
02:40
they may still go to work, essential work, or go to work
02:44
'cause they gotta choose, do I eat now,
02:46
do I go to the hospital,
02:47
maybe find out that I have the virus,
02:49
get put into a hospital,
02:50
and then have this large medical bill afterwards.
02:53
People shouldn't have to be makin that choice,
02:55
but in making it, think about they make it
02:58
to not go and ride it through.
03:00
Guess what, they put everybody at risk
03:02
who comes and gets that food,
03:04
or comes in that restaurant or are they're around.
03:07
Do you feel that you have a champion
03:10
for the causes you're talking about for healthcare,
03:16
income for the poor,
03:18
and equal access and all these things
03:20
that you've been discussing for years and years,
03:22
you feel you have an ally in Joe Biden?
03:25
Last night he was talking about
03:26
the heroes of the essential workers.
03:29
He was saying we are seeing the soul of America.
03:32
And I'm writing a tweet now, I haven't seen it yet,
03:34
to say okay, if we are seeing the soul of America
03:38
in these essential workers,
03:40
when are they gonna see the soul of America?
03:43
In other words if they are essential,
03:45
when are we gonna treat them like essential?
03:47
If they did not hesitate in going in to try to save patients
03:52
and putting groceries on our shelves
03:55
and cleaning our bedpans and handing us our food,
04:00
then are we ready as America now,
04:03
and is he and others, are they ready to champion
04:06
that we cannot hesitate making sure now,
04:08
that they have healthcare?
04:10
He has a chance this moment, even to say you know,
04:13
before this thing happened,
04:16
I was still talking about just expanding Obamacare.
04:20
But in this moment, I'm gonna adjust my position.
04:23
I gotta adjust my position.
04:25
I believe everything now can shift
04:28
because this moment of possible mortality for all of us
04:33
calls us to a new place.
04:35
Reverend, I think that your argument
04:39
with someone like Donald Trump is not merely ideological,
04:42
although that's a huge part of it.
04:44
It also has to go to a sense of character,
04:47
a sense of empathy or the lack of empathy.
04:50
As a spiritual leader,
04:51
how do you look at a person like that?
04:53
What do you make of him?
04:55
When it comes to Trump,
04:57
or when it comes to George Wallace, we look at policies.
05:01
You can say all day what you are.
05:04
But your policies is how, as a spiritual person,
05:08
as a person of faith we are supposed to examine what you do.
05:12
So for instance, the last week of Jesus's life,
05:16
He was talking like this.
05:17
Matthew 23, he said:
05:19
Woe unto you all that go through
05:20
all of these religious things,
05:22
but you leave undone justice.
05:25
You leave undone mercy.
05:27
Jesus said, Listen: When I was hungry did you feed me?
05:31
When I was naked did you clothe me?
05:32
When I was sick did you care about?
05:33
When I was in prison, when I was an immigrant,
05:35
did you welcome me?
05:37
He said, In as much as you do unto the least of these,
05:40
you've done it unto me, not just to them, to me.
05:43
So what you do with a leader,
05:44
is you take those policies
05:46
and you lay those values on top of that policy.
05:50
And you say if those policies
05:52
don't care for the least of these first,
05:54
the poor, the sick the imprisoned, the immigrants,
05:57
if those policies don't line up, then it's not of God.
06:00
It's not right, It's immoral.
06:02
It is not lost on you in North Carolina,
06:04
and it's not lost on me in New York,
06:07
that the rate of infection among African Americans
06:11
in counties that are majority black
06:15
is three times higher than in counties
06:17
where the majority is white.
06:20
Rate of death and mortality rate
06:22
is six times higher in black regarding counties.
06:26
What does that tell us?
06:28
It tells us that the structural realities
06:32
and inequalities that existed before this pandemic
06:35
that put people in a position where they had
06:38
the least amount of health care,
06:40
the most amount of pre existing conditions.
06:42
Because of the way in which the things
06:45
that could stagmate over the realities
06:48
are metered out in such racially divisive and in-just ways.
06:54
In a pandemic, it then gets exposed.
06:58
This pandemic is saying to us
07:02
something that Dr. King said a long time ago.
07:05
We will learn to live together
07:07
as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools.
07:10
So while it may be six times higher,
07:13
guess what, all of those people that get openly infected,
07:16
those percentages, they hurt the black community,
07:20
but it also keeps the pandemic alive
07:23
in the larger community.
07:24
That's the difference with a pandemic.
07:27
Some other forms of racism, you can keep it isolated.
07:30
You can keep that racism over there in that community,
07:34
or that housing area, or you can realign that area,
07:39
or you can vote to suppress that area.
07:40
But a pandemic is different.
07:42
If you allow it to spread like that,
07:45
and don't address the structural realities
07:48
that put people in what we call predisposed,
07:51
that make them predispose,
07:54
then,
07:55
it actually allows
07:57
the pandemic to have a greater
08:00
foothold in the larger society.
08:02
So this is the question I'm asking people now,
08:05
and I'm wrestling with myself
08:06
'cause I have my own immune deficiencies:
08:09
If you knew
08:12
that you have 48 hours of breath left,
08:15
because that's real for people who get the disease,
08:18
that if they contract this disease,
08:21
in 48 hours they could be on a ventilator
08:23
no longer breathing under their own breath.
08:26
If you knew you had only 48 hours of breath left,
08:31
what kind of world would you use that breath to fight for?
08:35
Would you fight for a nation where people
08:38
at least can be guaranteed [soft music]
08:41
that their water's not gonna be cut off,
08:43
that they have a living wage, that they have health care,
08:47
that they have basic affordable hou...
08:49
What world, what kind of justice, what kind of love,
08:52
what kind of truth, would you fight for
08:55
if you knew you only have 48 more hours of breath left?