During the election cycle, both race in the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic have been controversial topics. The Justice asked students of the Brandeis community about these issues and more. The participants include columnists for the Justice Reena Zuckerman ’23 and Vandita Malviya Wilson M.P.P ’22, as well as Clay Napurano ’24 and a member of the Brandeis Democrats, Noah Risley ’24.

Race in the United States

Vandita Malviya Wilson M.A. '22 (left) and Reena Zuckerman '23 (right).

Vandita Malviya Wilson: The latest fashionable department in Corporate America is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chief Officer. The first time I heard this was a few years ago, and my response was a big yawn. Similar to the commitment to diversify their Board of Directors, or to “launch an investigation,” a new C-suite position and gleaming job description do not rectify centuries of abuse. What would this person do other than look good in glossy marketing brochures? I see this title responding to emails, arranging some lectures and being genuinely concerned about the constituency, but then being able to do very little about it. I think what I would want them to do — I don’t have an answer, other than that I myself would want to be invited to the board meetings, to be taken seriously and to be considered for opportunities, and not just for my skin color or gender. I would also want some kind of outrage-o-meter, where there’s a list of the latest items in the news where yet another person of color has been killed in cold blood by those who are supposed to protect and serve. Eventually, this could be culled into a newsletter, where I would also want to see the lackluster reaction by my elected officials, or by my non-POC friends who look at me like I’m an alien when I mention this and then promptly change the subject every time I tell them to use their white privilege.

Reena Zuckerman: As a student still in college, I have never really had an experience with a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer (I am aware that Brandeis has one, I just have not had any interactions with that person). One thing that bothers me about these positions is that it has taken so long for companies and white America at large to realize something is really wrong. I wonder, even if a DEI officer is mostly a small band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound, does it at least do something? Even if this is the case, it is important for us to do more!

VMW: I don’t have experience with this role at Brandeis, and this might not apply in academia, but in corporate America, it has been, in my experience, a band-aid response to a gushing wound. Google has had people last in that position for only a few years. If one considers diversity at Uber, and what has been happening there in the past few years, and then goes to their website, the best thing I can say for them is that the management is experiencing severe cognitive dissonance. Companies talk a good game, but that’s marketing and MBA hype. The truth is far from them actually being woke. Another example is Starbucks wanting to have their board be more diverse. That’s great, but these companies are part of the problem of underrepresented groups, and hiring in name only might increase their value to the shareholders owning a majority of their stock but do nothing for a person of color like me.

RZ: When the idea started to defund the police, I first started thinking about Brandeis and other college campuses. In a lot of ways, the police on campus are not doing the same things as a city police force. Maybe it is better and easier to start with reforming college campus police forces because of that difference. Reading through the Black Action Plan for “Reimagining the Brandeis Police,” the policies seem important and reasonable to accomplish. They include adding more mental health professionals and calling them instead of University Police, keeping a record of when a gun is pulled and more. These are similar to those being raised in the national conversation as well. I could see a way for the reworking of collegiate police departments to serve as a model for some cities and towns, though of course there are differences. I find the armed police force intimidating as a white person and I can’t imagine what it is like to be a POC on campus. 

VMW: The first thing any campus police department needs to understand is that as a student, I can and should be able to wear whatever I want and do my hair however I want, and they need to be re-trained about their biases. Considering that most calls to the police are in response to non life-threatening situations, I certainly don’t think police anywhere need elaborate weapons or SWAT teams and SWAT gear. If the Brandeis Counseling Center could train or work with the University police so that they could learn to de-escalate tensions, rather than contributing to them, that’s a good start. For me, I just keep my eyes and ears open, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone in law enforcement, because while I see myself as a citizen of the world, they see me as “other” and as a person of color, long before anything else. In my hometown, the police used to be “community based” and they worked alongside the people. As the narrative of crime and the “broken window” theory gained traction, and increased police presence was credited with reduced crime incidents, police department funding spiraled into the stratosphere. Getting this down to a reasonable level will take time. 

RZ: Thanks for sharing this, it had a real impact on me, and it is important for stories like yours to be elevated in the conversation! I hope that yours and others’ will help make a real difference and impact on Brandeis such that we can make this a safer space for all POC on campus. 

The COVID-19 pandemic

Noah Risley '24 (left) and Clay Napurano '24 (right).

Noah Risley: The recent spikes in COVID-19 cases are most attributable to the lack of real measures taken by the United States. The pandemic reached the United States. in March, luckily enough for the current administration, which preceded the warmest months of the year. The flu and the common cold are given more opportunities to spread in the colder months as events and people are forced inside more often, as the epidemiologists have been pointing to all along. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and will therefore follow the same trajectory. The personal responsibility argument that Trump and the Republican Party have been making works slightly more in the warmer weather. This will soon crumble. The country has not invested in nationwide testing, contact tracing, lockdowns akin to Europe and East Asian countries or any other real measures. The spread has not been contained as it should have been and we may have even entered into a sort of herd immunity, but not in a way that benefits the population as many say that it does. 

Clay Napurano: Obviously statistics and science are things to be followed. Dr. Anthony Fauci is making statements that have evolved because we’re learning about this virus in real time. It accounts for these random instances of spikes, ebbs and troughs, and indirectly affects many different things, like the economy. If you’ve tracked the economy over the course of this pandemic, the Dow Jones Industrial Average goes up and down by the day like a rollercoaster. These recent spikes in coronavirus cases are attributable to statistics, science and a lackluster response. What Trump and the Republicans thought was that they would be politically “OK” because the disease wouldn’t affect the Sun Belt or Bread Basket states. Especially in the middle of the country, states have sort of a socially-distant population, and were initially considered unlikely to see outbreaks. When the virus spread inwards into places like Arizona, it became apparent that the virus, when left unchecked, will rapidly spread. These resurgent spikes are interesting because when the spikes go away, the President and his administration speaks in the present perfect, saying the virus has “gone away,” ignoring the cyclical nature of the spikes in the virus, creating a vicious cycle of the coronavirus resurging and fading and directly shifting the stock market and its ebbs and troughs. 

NR: People consider us in the third wave of coronavirus. I want to argue against this. The way states and countries that have a handle on the issue categorize waves differently. We are in a class of our own in this sense, with the sheer magnitude of the number of daily cases and hospitalizations that we have. The minimum was in the 20,000s or 30,000s, which is more than individual countries cumulatively have seen. The ebbing and flowing of the disease has a ceiling that is still incredibly high. The people who are dying are not rich white men, people who haven’t had generations of systemic racism affecting their health or people who have money to access newfound treatments. Black and Brown community deaths count less in the eyes of this administration because the racist attitude which prevails in the White House considers them less of a person. The way that the White House talks about waves and spikes connotes a detached point of view concerning the deaths of these communities. It neglects to address the fact that we were having 500-600 deaths a day. Is it only notable when we have 1,000 deaths a day because it includes more white people than a “normal” day? This language is uniquely American and uniquely destructive. 

CN: The phrasing of spikes and waves speaks to the framing that the news media has created around the pandemic. The American news media is more entertainment than news, and MSNBC and Fox News are closer to “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” than informative sources of current events and politics in terms of trying to comfort rather than inform. Both sides lull you into a sense of partisan comfort or outrage. This is uniquely difficult during a pandemic, and so the phrasing these media outlets have created to soften the blow of government inaction and mass casualties is frightening. Because Trump has taken the bully pulpit in his presidency, the news is mostly about the federal government. It’s all about Trump and the executive branch. This creates a populace that just sees through the lens of the federal government and its view on the pandemic. You saw earlier the focus on governors scrambling for supplies, not from the gubernatorial or state perspective, but from the executive perspective of inaction and taking all the credit. There’s no structure as to what is happening with the pandemic, which makes it hard to cover in a linear and profitable way, but it’s the only thing that people want to hear about. Although people are constantly trying to distract themselves from things going on, the major news outlets that inform most of the nation cannot close their eyes as well, they’re left scrambling to impose categories on things we really don’t have a category for, which is where we get these “spikes” and “waves” from. It’s Americans looking at the Johns Hopkins University website, aghast at the numbers and not knowing how to make sense of them. They’re looking for answers from organizations looking to make money. 

CN: I have been fascinated by the different way generations have responded to the coronavirus. What’s really fascinating to me is that the generation I’m a part of (Gen-Z) and the generation that surrounds me on campus is good with wearing masks. However, we are by no means perfect at following science and you’ll always have dissidents when it comes to mask-wearing. It’s interesting that the divide between science and ignorance becomes sharper with generational divides. It’s not that one generation is more liberal or conservative than the other, but we have one generation that’s particularly susceptible to the virus. You don’t want to kill your grandparents and your grandparents don’t want to die, but even the people most at risk won’t follow the rules very closely. In our very polarized and sharply divided nation, it’s interesting to see people forget their own mortality as a sacrifice to partisan politics. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proclaimed he was ready to risk his life for the economy of the U.S. and for the glory of the Republican party, and that other grandparents were also ready. People who have been through a lot are willing to sacrifice themselves for a partisan divide. This raises the stakes in the current election because people are so polarized that they are actually willing to die and go against basic facts for their party. On both sides, there will be discontented people as a result of this upcoming election. We are in a lull because both sides (for the most part) agree that voting is important. However, when we end up having to decide on winners and losers, the pandemic has proven that this country is willing to get much more lethal.   

NR: It is interesting to examine the generational differences and attitudes. You can discuss the adherence to science based along different age groups. The Baby Boomers, one of the oldest generations with the most presence in the U.S., seem to have a disregard for information or lack scientific literacy. Gen-Z appears to have much more scientific literacy and adherence to science. The causes are still up for debate, but most of the messaging comes from doing good for benefiting others. The oldest people are the least compliant to the rules, leading to the question:“why should I protect you if you are not protecting yourselves?” It is interesting to see how Trump was up with seniors in 2016, but now they support Biden. Comments like Dan Patrick show how the current administration thinks that the blood of the American people and especially our elders should be spilled to keep the gears of capitalism turning. Dying for the stock market is not a controversial statement in party ranks anymore, which speaks to polarization. Facts are suddenly debatable based on partisanship; everything is a debate and not an objective fact. The Washington Post did an excellent piece on Dr. Fauci’s career. They characterized him as making a bargain about AIDS with Ronald Reagan, disregarding his view on AIDS and supplying him with the raw science. This bargain had survived up until Trump. With a character like Trump we have seen a detachment of science as something objective and more of a partisan conflict. This doesn’t bode well for partisan politics if we can’t agree on facts surrounding basic epidemiology. I am unsure as to whether this will lead to more fierce partisanship, or something like one of the hyperbolic predictions about civil war.