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 the University of Michigan’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.
O’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.”
O’Brien also recounted the challenges her Afro-Cuban mother and white Australian father faced when they married in 1958, when interracial marriage was illegal in their home state of Maryland. People would spit on their family when they walked down the street, O’Brien said.
O’Brien launched her journalism career in the late 1980s. However, she said it wasn’t until she reported on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that she began to understand “systems at work.” That story wasn’t just about a storm, she said.
“For me to witness as a reporter the complete and utter failure of people to help people who need it the most, I guess it gave me a sense of urgency and understanding about how we have to think about stories, especially when they come to involve race and something that’s unfolding in the current day,” she said.
During his remarks, Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said U-M has accomplished a lot over the past five years of its DEI strategic plan, but still has a lot of work to do.
“This journey is a journey that will be multi-generational,” he said.
President Mark Schlissel said a goal of U-M’s strategic planning around diversity, equity and inclusion was “to ensure that our highest values would permeate all aspects of our university.”
“DEI at U-M extends through all parts of our campus, uniting thousands in our community in service of the idea that we cannot be excellent without being diverse, and that we must ensure our community allows all individuals an equal opportunity to thrive,” he said.
Schlissel said the community is too often attacked by expressions of white supremacy, xenophobia, antisemitism, bigotry, Islamophobia and other forms of hate. The strategic DEI planning has helped U-M confront those challenges, he said.
He also said the university is examining policies and procedures that may unintentionally have disparate impacts on groups of people.
Riana Anderson, assistant professor of public health, moderated a panel discussion that featured O’Brien and four others:
- Sydney Carr, a joint public policy and political science Ph.D. student and president of Students of Color Rackham.
- Valerie Kaur, an activist, lawyer and author.
- Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation and urology at Michigan Medicine, and director of Services for Students with Disabilities and of Adaptive Sports and Fitness.
- Jeff Witt, organizational development lead and DEI lead at the University Library.
Kaur said in the wake of Floyd’s killing, Black leaders she works with experienced despair, but not shock. She also said the incident sparked an awakening in people outside of the Black community who realized they “could no longer turn away.”
“That awakening is an opportunity for us to follow the lead of people of color who have been in the struggle for a very, very long time,” she said.
Kaur also reflected on a question she said keeps her going every day.
“The future feels dark. But what if this darkness is not the darkness of a tomb, but the darkness of a womb? What if our America is not dead, but a nation still waiting to be born?”
She said progress in birthing labor is cyclical, not linear, with a series of expansions and contractions.
“Every turn through the cycle feels like a previous trauma, but every time more and more people are awake and committed to show up to the labor, it creates more space for solidarity and equality and dignity than there was before,” she said.
“And that’s what gives me hope, that if people are showing up with this ethic of love, this revolutionary love, to see others as sisters and brothers in the struggle alongside us, then I don’t know how many more turns of the cycle it’s going to take before we birth an America where we are all safe and free.”