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Column: A tale of two viruses, and COVID-19 has nothing on racism

Police line up outside Kenosha County Courthouse, spray-painted with "They kill us because they fear us. Honor the dead."
Police in riot gear line up to face protesters Monday outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Wisconsin.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

Two viruses walk into a bar.

The younger one is loud and brash, the kind that wants credit for chaos and enjoys 24-hour news coverage. The elder watches him, remembering a time when he too embraced a more boisterous presence in the limelight.

At one point, the older virus was so popular he occupied space in the Constitution. But over time, cultural norms changed, and in his wisdom the older virus realized that survival wasn’t predicated on grabbing the spotlight but, rather, in his ability to operate in the shadows.

While the new virus revels in its capacity to shut things down, the older virus found its strength in preserving the status quo. The new virus is elated that people are wearing masks; the old virus smiles while thinking: “Been there, done that.”

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After the new virus orders another round, he stands on top of his bar stool and yells, “Wait until they see my second wave.” The older virus thanks the younger for the drink and teases: “Talk to me when you’ve been around for centuries.”

They share a long, hearty laugh.

Then the younger virus looks around at the patrons in the bar before turning to his drinking partner: “All right, old-timer, I’ll bite. What’s the secret to longevity?”

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The older virus sets down his drink. His gaze shifts away from his drinking buddy as the slightest of smiles makes its way across his face. He’s not searching for answers. No, he’s recalling some of his favorite moments — the systems he’s erected, the senseless loss of life, the gaslighting. And then, just before this bit of performance theater becomes tiresome, he leans forward and whispers, “Only the sick seek treatment.”

The younger virus is stunned. He thought mandatory tests and bubbles demonstrated his prowess when, in fact, real strength comes from the ability to convince the sick that all is well.

There are signs posted everywhere warning people of the dangers of the younger virus, whereas the older virus gets dismissed as “Black people looking for handouts” or “What about Chicago?”

The younger virus is aware that some of the most powerful people in the country are working diligently to mitigate its impact. Meanwhile, the older virus knows some of the most powerful people in the country are working diligently to deny its very existence. He knows this because just the other night during the Republican National Convention, Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and onetime governor of South Carolina, said, “It’s now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie,” before offering this gem: “America is not a racist country.”

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Pure perfection.

Imagine flying the flag of treason and racism at your office for four years, having a white supremacist gun down innocent Black people praying in church, watch unconstitutional voter laws from neighboring North Carolina be struck down by the Supreme Court because it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and still deny the existence of a virus that has been poisoning this land since the day Christopher Columbus got credit for discovering a country already filled with people.

Now that’s power.

Even now, after the sports world came to an unexpected halt in an attempt to draw attention to the country’s illness, people would rather dismiss the effort as nonsensical than empathize with the pain. “How can you be oppressed? You’re rich,” as if money has ever kept people from getting sick.

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Money didn’t protect LeBron James from having “nigger” spray painted on his house in Brentwood. Being rich and in the Hall of Fame didn’t keep the virus away from Jamaal Wilkes, who was stopped and handcuffed despite having broken no law. Being rich and the head coach of an NFL team didn’t inoculate the Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn either.

“I was pulled over not too long ago. The lights come on, I pull over and the first thing the police officer asked [was] if I was on parole or if I had ever been to jail,” he said in June.

But by all means, continue to find reasons to deny we’re sick.

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Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was considered unfit for duty by his previous employer; Derek Chauvin, the officer who kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck, had 18 complaints on his official record; Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., joined the Ferguson (Mo.) Police Department after his previous department was disbanded for being too racist. And we knew elements of Jacob Blake’s background within 24 hours of himbeing shot seven times in the back while the Kenosha Police Department took three days to present officer Rusten Sheskey’s version of the story.

And some people still wonder why there is distrust.

The question isn’t whether Blake, or Brown, or Floyd, or even Rice, are good people or even innocent of crimes. The issue is whether the officers were justified in shooting and/or killing them. The role of law enforcement officers is to bring people to justice, not to act as judge and jury.

The new virus wants credit for the lives it destroys. The old virus trains people to see an unarmed Black or Latino person face down in the street, body riddled with bullets, and demand the corpse proves its innocence.

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This is why sports paused — again. This is why we have protests in the streets — again. This is why we’re here — still. To paraphrase Lauryn Hill, it can all be so simple, but we’d rather make it hard.

The other night, two viruses walked into a bar to have a drink. The younger virus puffed out his chest and told everyone within earshot that he alone stopped the world of sports. The older virus just shrugged his shoulders. He doesn’t care.

“Go ahead” he thought. “Throw the football, swing the bat, dribble the ball … just as long as you shut up while doing it. It’s better for me that way.”


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