‘Let’s educate’: UC Berkeley faculty discusses bridging racial divides amid COVID-19

Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wearing facemasks on March 6th, 2020 as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads throughout the United States.
Chad Davis/Creative Commons

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Educators must “reimagine” their roles in public engagement to bridge political and racial divides over COVID-19, campus faculty said in an online panel Friday.

The event, which was part of campus’s ongoing series called “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19,” included the perspectives of three campus faculty members. UC Berkeley sociology associate professor Cristina Mora discussed the results of a study she recently published, which found that respondents of color were less likely to be able to work safely from home and more likely to report that the disease had impacted their ability to cover basic needs, compared to white respondents.

Republicans were “significantly” less likely than liberals to think that the coronavirus poses a hazard to their personal health, according to the study. The most liberal white voters, however, expressed less concern about the pandemic than some of the most conservative Black and Latinx respondents did.

“We’re not talking about COVID’s impacts on savings and 401(k)s,” Mora said during the event. “We’re talking about food and rent.”

Campus public health associate professor Mahasin Mujahid said she thinks recent calls to reopen society do not consider heightened health risks for Black individuals.

According to Mujahid, the state of Georgia announced plans to end shelter-in-place orders shortly after it became known that Black people represented 83% of coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

“Blacks were less likely to be able to in-shelter in the first place,” Mujahid said during the event. “We’re not only these ‘essential workers,’ but we are also disposable.”

Mujahid added that the recent Black Lives Matter protests have demanded an anti-racism framework in analyzing health outcomes. In her view, the narrative about COVID-19 has shifted from a question of personal responsibility and underlying health conditions to the “ways in which racism is playing out” in government response.

Panelists also discussed how bridging political divides over the coronavirus requires listening. In addition to opinions on policy measures, professor of law and African American studies john powell believes individuals must listen to others’ lived experiences — emotions, fears, desires and injuries.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that people are experts to their lives on how to make decisions on a daily basis and that we have a lot to learn,” Mujahid said at the event. “It’s important that we listen to all sides.”

Mora said she believes that the work of people in academia must not “sit in ivory towers” and that they must find ways to engage with the public.

She added that “reimagining” the role of academics will require shifting their goals from “books and articles” to websites, community meetings and knowledge and ideas brought to the public.

“We’re an education institution,” powell said at the event. “Let’s educate.”

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.