Issac J. Bailey

The truth about the downfall of a star reporter at the New York Times

It wasn't the utterance of the n-word that ended Donald McNeil's career with The New York Times. It was his incuriosity about maybe the most important story of our time, his comfort wrapped in a kind of blinkered ignorance, that likely did him in.

I'm not talking about the pandemic, for which McNeil's reporting has been rightly praised and may net him a Pulitzer. I'm talking about rapidly shifting racial demographics in the United States and what that means for our democracy, cultural understanding and a host of related issues that include science and public health.

That's the way he comes across in his own four-part series of columns explaining his exit from the Times. It doesn't much matter that he also sounds ornery and a bit entitled to say whatever he wants because he's been allowed to for such a long time. He even admits a time in which he said something so nasty about his boss, and shared it with colleagues, he expected to be fired. Gruffness is not a disqualifier inside newsrooms. It is a hallmark of many (though not all) accomplished journalists.

This episode is bigger than McNeil. The response speaks volumes about how far we are from having the serious, nuanced discussion needed to get us to a better place.

I've worked with such men and women. They're often great allies once you understand them. I don't doubt McNeil is in that number. But their demeanor can make you angry. They sometimes cross the line into disrespect, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. Their presence, though, often forces those around them to remain on alert and have to refine their thinking in ways that often improves their work. It's why it would be unwise to usher them out the door before fully considering what effect losing their voice, no matter how gruff, would have on our ability to fully understand the complex, gut-wrenching issues we'll be facing for the foreseeable future.

This is about the point where I must state a few things for readers afflicted by white fragility, which makes it difficult for many to earnestly grapple with points-of-view about race that make them uncomfortable: I'm not calling McNeil a racist.

I have no reason to believe he is. I would have had no problem if he were still a reporter with the Times. (He was forced or encouraged to resign though had the opportunity to take on a different role, which he reportedly declined.) Journalists who have the kinds of biases and blind spots illustrated by McNeil's own words should not be ushered out of newsrooms to make room for the so-called "woke." I just wish men like McNeil were more willing to examine themselves than presenting their long resumes as a kind of inoculation against even sincere, and much-needed, criticism.

Not only that, but management at the Times did not handle this well. That, however, is frankly typical of large media outlets that seem to not understand the need for radical clarity and transparency not only from those they report on but from themselves. It made little sense to tell McNeil he "lost the newsroom." It's the job of the managers and supervisors to set expectations and ensure everyone in the newsroom can be at their best no matter whom they are paired for a particular assignment, not McNeil's.

Also, notice how I've barely mentioned the n-word incident. After reading McNeil's explanation, speaking to others inside that newsroom and reading the independent reporting, I'm more convinced than ever that was not the reason he is no longer with the Times, except maybe in a straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back kind of way. Besides that, McNeil's decision to list in his letter the times the n-word was spelled out in the pages of the Times to contrast with his actions, and assert he was a victim of racial discrimination, underscores a glaring need for him to commit to soul-searching.

His Black colleagues would not have been upset had McNeil and his editor decided to spell the word out in an article if they had deemed it necessary. No serious person argues that such situations are off limits to anyone, Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American or white. But that's not what McNeil did on that now-infamous trip to Peru during which he was representing the Times as an expert. He was neither reading from Huck Finn while talking to those teenagers nor quoting NWA.

His use of the n-word was ill-advised, no matter his intent. That's what started this, not "woke" colleagues, not ill-defined "cancel culture." We are here because of his actions—not those students'. That's why his incuriosity is most damning.

In the context he decided to utter the n-word in all its glory, he had no good reason to. None. It was unnecessary. Every white journalist—every white person—knows if he chooses to do such a thing, it will raise questions about his judgment and what else he has been doing and saying, no matter how many times his supporters quote Ta-Nehisi Coates or Barack Obama, point to the conclusion of Randall Kennedy's Nigger: The Troublesome Career of a Strange Word or dig up Chris Rock's Bring the Pain. Hell, I'm Black but still pause before uttering the word in any context. I understand its power.

McNeil's use of the n-word was ill-advised, no matter his intent. That's what started this, not his "woke" colleagues, not his bosses, not ill-defined "cancel culture." We are here because of McNeil's actions—not those students'. That's why his incuriosity is most damning. The irony is that though he was determined to teach those white kids a thing or two about race, had McNeil listened more intently and considered more seriously what they were saying, he would have been better off, more informed.

In Peru, he got facts wrong about controversial events, such as the Minstrel Carnival in South Africa that was once named the "Coon Carnival," even as he was lecturing teenagers to think beyond what they already believed. He argued that "the United States was never an imperial colonialist power in the way that Britain and France and Portugal were." He argued that colonialism is over. He joked about racial disparities in standardized testing. He claimed to understand systemic racism is real—before essentially explaining why it isn't. He chided a student for feeling "obligated to speak up for brown and Black people who can't speak for themselves," even knowing there was a lack of Black and brown students to speak up for themselves on that trip. He spouted straw-man arguments on subjects that require nuance and expertise.

McNeil wrote about one of his exchanges with a student this way: "I got exasperated and said something like: "Look, I don't accept the far-leftie notion that there's this Manichean split: all the evil in the world is done by white men, Americans, the US government, the CIA, colonialism or whatever, and all the rest of the world—brown and Black people, women, Latin America, Africa, etc.—are their victims. That was the line I heard at Berkeley 40 years ago when everyone read Max Weber and socialist countries actually existed and everyone was trying to prove they were more radical, more Communist, more Trotskyist, more Spartacist than each other."

McNeil waxed poetic about how some Black people are in prison "because they actually committed violent crimes. You can't blame it all on institutional racism." Some Black people are in prison because they actually committed crimes and not solely because of the racist foundation of the prison system? Who knew?!

Representing the Times, McNeil said this to a group of mostly-white-well-off students on a trip: "And, I added, in my opinion, Black teenagers don't do themselves any favors by adopting the gangsta ethic—dressing like thugs, glorifying violence, beating up women. Nobody will hire you if you look like a thug—even Obama said 'pull your pants up—there are grandmothers here.' It practically taunts the cops to target you. And once you've got a prison record, it's really, really hard to get a decent job."

Someone who understood systemic racism would have probably pointed out how absurd it is to blame young Black dudes for their mistreatment by the criminal system because of the way they dress. But that someone isn't McNeil—or at least it wasn't him in his own explanation. His own descriptions of his heated exchanges with students came across as a smugness bathed in racial stereotypes that have gotten Black boys like Trayvon Martin killed. Let's be honest. His words would have found a welcome home on "The O'Reilly Factor" in 2012 and "The Tucker Carlson Show" tonight.

It's more than that, though. I don't feel an urge to sift through McNeil's 40 years of work. Besides, if I took such a route, his defenders would accuse me of being unfair. But Jonathan Myerson Katz has never forgotten a piece McNeil wrote during the Obama era under the headline "Cholera's Second Fever: An Urge to Blame." Katz had discovered that a United Nations mission caused a cholera outbreak in Haiti, leading to the deaths of 8,500 people. McNeil soon thereafter focused on the importance of remembering that "the blame game for pandemics eventually involves everyone."

It included this: "And the 'fault'—if that's the word—often lies just as much with the victims as with the vectors, since, as in syphilis's case, they are careless about whom they cavort with, and with cholera, they must lack good sanitation for it to spread."

A journalist who fully understood systemic racism would have asked: Why do they lack good sanitation? What role, if any, does racism play in that reality? What's the best way to counteract it even while juggling other concerns? It was not apparent in that piece that McNeil had considered such things. That he didn't should give pause to everyone who wants to write this off as just another overwrought "cancellation."

We are amid a once-in-a-century crisis that has disproportionately sickened and killed Black and brown people while Black and brown people have been disproportionately left behind by early vaccination efforts. Any journalist—every journalist—who touches this story must be fully aware of the roots and reaches of systemic problems and biases that are among the primary reasons we find ourselves in such a precarious situation. For all the well-earned praise McNeil has received, his blind spots on race—revealed by his own words—should also be scrutinized. The story is too important to look the other way, to allow this to be the latest front in the overwrought cancel culture wars.

It's bigger than McNeil, though.

The response to this episode speaks volumes about how far we are from having the kind of serious, nuanced discussion we need to get us to a better place.

For radical clarity one last time: I didn't want to see McNeil fired. I don't believe he is racist. Viewpoint diversity remains crucial and always will be. But that means Black colleagues who raise questions about the racial views of a white colleague, particularly a celebrated one, should not be demeaned as "too woke" or "too sensitive" or told to just swallow what they believe is offensive and unhelpful behavior. That's what they've been forced to do at places like the Times for far too long. That has to end. And now.

What should white people learn from this episode? That just because you aren't racist doesn't mean you are immune to ways of thinking that can be harmful and affect your work in ways you don't realize. That a Black colleague's decision to raise those issues aren't always an attempt to make you feel guilty or silence you, but rather to improve your work and their own. That that's true even when management gets it wrong.

Here's what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets that Ted Cruz is missing

While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was raising about $5 million for residents in a state Ted Cruz represents, Cruz decided it was the perfect time to take a vacation. Then he deflected blame for his awful decision onto his two young daughters. That happened less than two months after Ocasio-Cortez had to dodge a mob trying to harm or kill her on January 6 during an insurrection that left five dead, scores injured and our democracy on the brink, an insurrection sparked in part by men like Cruz.

The contrast between these speaks volumes not only about the differences between the gentlewoman from New York and the senator from Texas, but where the outer polls of the two parties currently stand. One is based on policies designed to help the vulnerable even in the face of harsh critiques from supposed moderates. The other is faking populism to hold fast to a shrinking, less-diverse base in service of an elite that cares more about power and comfort than improving the lives of the struggling.

In short: Ocasio-Cortez gets it; Cruz does not. Democrats should be excited to have her as a high-profile representative of their party. Republicans who neither worship at the altar of Donald Trump nor whose primary goal is to impress Fox News personalities should be terrified that Cruz continues speaking for theirs.

The obvious genuineness of Ocasio-Cortez is the thing that can crack a big red wall and lead to the kind of cross ideological-interracial coalition Democrats claim to want.

I suspect that voters in red states and red districts understand that truth, even if it's hard to capture that sentiment in polling data or voting records. I say that because I'm one of those red state-red district voters who has long been more impressed with Ocasio-Cortez, whose ultimate goal seems to actually be the betterment of the everyday American and non-citizen, than I have been with the likes of Cruz, who gushes about freedom and liberty while comfortably undermining democracy when it suits himself and others of the privileged class.

When I speak to or overhear Republicans and independents in my neck of the woods in South Carolina and North Carolina, it's clear that they get that, too. It's why I believe Democrats would be foolish to buy into the notion that supposedly "far left" policies will forever turn off conservatives and conservative-leaning voters in red states. I'm no political strategist. But I know the obvious genuineness of leaders like Ocasio-Cortez is the thing that can crack what seems like a big red wall and lead to the kind of cross ideological-interracial coalition Democrats claim to want. I know Ocasio-Cortez would not have foolishly deregulated the energy sector in Texas so severely it would lead to an 11-year-old boy freezing to death in his mobile home and a grandmother frozen in her backyard.

I know that the non-college white voter has been fleeing the Democratic Party since the Reagan era. I get that just about any policy that can be perceived as helping Black and brown Americans loses support among the white-working class—even if those policies will help the white-working class. I haven't forgotten who provided an incompetent-dangerous bigot like Trump his most undying support. I will never forget. But I also know the longer Ocasio-Cortez keeps doing what she is doing—being who she clearly is—and other Democrats follow her lead rather than trying to turn her into just another politician, the more likely a breakthrough becomes, one in which party affiliation and race will no longer be the primary reasons the most vulnerable Americans find it difficult to come together.

The more often leaders like Ocasio-Cortez step up during horrific events, like the one Texans have been grappling with for more than a week, the less effective the demonization of the Green New Deal or pro-choice policies will be. Cruz and the like will no longer be able to use those things as bogeymen to gin up votes to retain power they've repeatedly proven they don't deserve.

I don't agree with Ocasio-Cortez on everything. I'm not a hard-left liberal. I'm not convinced the Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change (though it might be) or that Medicare for All is the ideal way to get us to universal health care (though it might be) or that a $15 minimum wage is the holy grail in our fight against poverty (maybe it is). I'm one of those pragmatic South Carolina voters who understood the appeal of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Just as Barack Obama's embrace of same-sex marriage didn't turn off the most conservative among us, neither will $50,000 in student loan relief or a push to "defund" the police, even if they aren't our priorities. We want leaders whom we can trust to place our interests ahead of their own. Ocasio-Cortez routinely does that. A few policy disagreements will never blind us to that.

The frightening costs of COVID go far beyond the infection

My 16-year-old daughter wants to hang out with us more. That's a problem, one that concerns me more than Covid-19. I hop in the truck to go to pick up some groceries. She hops in the truck with me. My wife hops into her car 5:30 in the morning to sit in a long line at the doctor's. My daughter wakes up early, too, and joins her, knowing she might just be sitting in with her mom for a couple of hours. I head to the gym on a rainy-cold day. She tells me she wants to go, too. I tell her I may work out for maybe 90 minutes to an hour, thinking that would dissuade her. She rushes upstairs, puts on her athletic clothes, grabs a coat, jumps in the truck.

I love spending time with my daughter, particularly knowing she will soon be on her way to college like her older brother did last fall. It harkens back to days when they would rush to greet me at the door every day after work, and when I'd buy them Happy Meals from McDonald's and they'd sit in the back of the classroom quietly eating as I taught a roomful of college students. I miss those times. But we are living in precarious days, making a rerun of the good old days feel not so good.

My teenage daughter might just like hanging out with me again, though this feels like a response to a growing sense of isolation that is likely affecting her and millions of others her age. That frightens me more than a coronavirus that has killed at least half a million Americans.

My teenage daughter might just like hanging out with me again, though this feels like a response to a growing sense of isolation that is likely affecting her and millions of others her age. That frightens me more than a coronavirus that has killed at least half a million Americans. That's why I desperately hope President Joe Biden makes good on his promise to do everything in his administration's power to reopen schools within the first 100 days of his presidency. I don't mean a watered-down version of his promise, which would count a school as reopened if it had in-person classes for as few as one day per week. Nearly two-thirds of students are already receiving that much school, including my daughter.

I understand the reluctance of those urging a go-slow approach. I've taken this pandemic seriously from the moment I heard of a new-strange virus in China. I ordered face masks for my family weeks before the CDC recommended. My family has been careful to commit to social distancing and hand-washing and the like, even when we had to, like millions of other Americans, miss out on graduation celebrations and funerals and visits to elderly loved ones and Sunday morning church services. We were careful when we went to the grocery store and how long we stayed. During jogs, I'd run to the other side of the road when anyone approached me on the sidewalk. Still, we got infected by the coronavirus. We were fortunate, only having to endure a couple of weeks of quarantine together and no serious complications.

I'm well aware of the complexity of trying to respond properly to a still-unfolding pandemic, emerging science and the potential dangers that remain. I know of the disturbingly uneven early vaccination efforts. I get the dread that new variants of Covid-19 might reverse the progress—a rapid decrease in infections, hospitalizations and deaths—we've seen over the past few weeks. I know that some of us are more vulnerable than others. I also know there are potentially horrific long-term consequences for keeping kids out of school. According to epidemiologist Benjamin Linas, there's already been "a rise in the use of pediatric emergency rooms for psychiatric illnesses, increasing anxiety and depression symptoms, losses in learning progress, and large racial disparities in the availability of in-person instruction and educational achievement."

Just recently, my neurologist gave me the greenlight and is now recommending I take the vaccine shots when they become available to me. I know the vaccines are safe, but we've been reluctant to move forward with it because I have a rare auto immune disease—Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, CIDP—that nearly killed me not too long ago. I've been in remission for five years. But the disease, which convinced my white blood cells to attack my nerve linings and shut down my major muscle groups, is so rare we don't know what triggered it or what might again. It's why I can't donate blood. We are kind of flying blind with my health. But we know enough to believe another infection is a bigger threat than the vaccine. The science seems to strongly suggest the same about the threat of schools reopening vs. what might happen to kids if they remain closed for much longer. The risk sparked by reopening will never be zero. But the risk to kids from closed schools grows by the day.

The curious case of a Trumpist Republican who turned on Trump

I don't know what to do with Tom Rice. He's the Republican who represents the 7th Congressional District of South Carolina in the US House of Representatives, a man I've interviewed and disagreed with heartily, a man who once felt compelled to call my editor to complain. In my role as lead columnist for the only daily newspaper in our region, I argued, mockingly, why he should not have been re-elected. He didn't like that and told my boss. I didn't like what he did in Congress and I told him. But he's one of only 10 Republican members of the House to have voted in favor of impeaching Donald Trump, which I know was the right thing to do.

I live in the 7th district though I commute to work as a journalism professor in North Carolina. Every now and again, I bump into Rice at Magnolia's, a country buffet restaurant in Myrtle Beach popular with locals. I was there when we were still part of the 1st District, which we shared with Charleston and produced the likes of Tim Scott and Mark Sanford. I was there when Rice won the newly-created 7th for the first time against a Democratic opponent whom I believed was more qualified. I remember Rice having to wade through a GOP primary that included opponents who were more staunchly Tea Party than he was.

That takes a level of political courage I simply did not believe he was capable of exhibiting. But I can't forget all that came before that vote. It would be like praising the arsonist for putting out the blaze after half the house went up in smoke.

I remember Rice during his early years in office when he tried to make a name for himself by signing onto a Republican House attempt to sue the Obama administration for how it implemented the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, better known as Obamacare, even though Rice knew like I knew that resisting that law meant losing out on billions of dollars, an estimated 44,000 potential jobs in our state and guaranteed maybe a quarter million of struggling South Carolinians would go without health insurance. I was there when Rice went on Fox News and C-Span talking about "King Obama." That's why I was not surprised when Rice voted against certifying Joe Biden's election victory even after a bloody insurrection that left at least five people dead and scores of others injured. I didn't expect any better from him. That's why I was gobsmacked when he changed course and decided to hold Trump accountable for his role in one of our democracy's darkest days of the 21st century.

I still don't know why he did it. In my county, Trump received more than two-thirds of the vote. Twice. Here, we are in the heart of Trumpland, where worship of Trump in some quarters rivals the worship of Jesus Christ. For much of his term, Rice used that to his advantage. He either looked the other way when confronted with Trump's awfulness, his bigotry and racism and cruelty and incompetence and corruption. Or he mildly chided him, but never falling out of line enough to evoke the wrath of Trump fans in the area, who are plentiful—and loud. He and Trump-worshipping voters here were in perfect alignment. That's why they were as shocked as I when he voted to impeach.

That's why the South Carolina Republican Party censured him, he's likely to face a primary challenge next year, and his office had to field thousands of angry calls after his vote. He knew all of that was possible, if not guaranteed, if he dared step out of line. But he did it anyway. That takes a level of political courage I simply did not believe he was capable of exhibiting. I must be honest about that. But I can't forget all that came before that vote. It would be like praising the arsonist for putting out the blaze after half the house went up in smoke.

Because of that, I don't know what to do with him. I can't bring myself to vote for him, given his record and what I know he'll stand for if given yet another term in Congress. But neither will I be happy if an even more right-wing politician takes him out during the primary and wins the general next November. It feels like a lose-lose proposition. I suspect I'm going to feel the same as more former Trump apologists stop apologizing for him. I'd rather have to grapple with that dilemma, though, than watch them never come back to sanity.

I thought we needed to be colorblind to fight racism — here's what convinced me I was wrong

I realized I had to give up my quest for colorblindness when I stood slack-jawed as a Black school board member asked how we would know if racist policies and practices had been curtailed if we didn't track disciplinary records, graduation rates and other statistics by race. I had no answer for him — there was no good answer. That was several years ago when I was a young journalist and new father and husband in Myrtle Beach, S.C. There still isn't. You can't solve a problem without acknowledging it.

I desperately wanted there to be a good answer. I had committed myself to transforming my life into one infused with the concept of colorblindness, of no longer giving into the social construct of race, which for such a long time has been used to abuse Black bodies and Black minds. I was serious.

In a perfect world, maybe colorblindness would have led to unity across supposed difference. But in the real world—in this world—colorblindness just as often, or maybe more so, blinds us to solutions to the problems we must confront.

I joined a mostly-white evangelical church, because the pastor had promised to make equality a priority of his teachings but with Jesus — not race — as the centerpiece of his philosophy, a Jesus and his followers who taught there was no Jew nor gentile, male nor female. I convinced my wife to join. Our kids were baptized there. We spent nearly two decades in that space, hoping to craft a colorblind existence, or at least I was hoping to defang racism by ridding the world of race.

All the while, I was trying to do the same in my professional life as a journalist. My first piece about race for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach 21 years ago included my admitting a latent fear of Black men I harbored even though I was a Black man. I eventually became lead local columnist for that paper after serving as business editor, feature writer and government reporter, spending much of that time calibrating my words and thinking during perpetual outreach to white people, to illustrate our commonalities. I hoped being that transparent would help me connect with my largely white-conservative audience and pave the way for improved discussions across differences. It would increase empathy, I thought, helping us better understand an issue that vexed us all. Later, during the Obama era, I turned over an entire column to a member of the area Tea Party to double down on that effort. I stopped checking the box for "black" on official documents for myself and kids. I wrote pieces questioning the logic of Black History Month. I even got a few kind messages from Ward Connerly from the other side of the country. (He's a Black former University of California Regent best known for his vehement opposition to race-based affirmative action.)

My voting record further illustrates my commitment. I routinely voted for Republicans and third-party candidates as much as I did for Democrats.

I'm not sure why, but I had become thoroughly convinced that race was fueling racism. If we could wean ourselves off it, relations between supposed races would improve, I assumed. Besides, I was deep into books explaining that race was just a social construct with no real biological foundation but was used nevertheless by slave owners and the like to do great harm to those with dark skin. Studies examining "stereotype threat" also moved me. Racism was a persistent problem only because we kept clinging to an outdated understanding of race. That's what I believed—until I got questions like the one I got from that school board member.

In a perfect world, maybe racial categories wouldn't exist, particularly the ones that affect nearly everything in the US. But this world isn't perfect. The damage left in the wake of purposeful and pernicious centuries-deep racial discrimination is real. We can't wave it away, can't wish it out of existence. We have to deal with and account for it. In a perfect world, maybe colorblindness would have led to unity across supposed difference. But in the real world—in this world—colorblindness just as often, or maybe more so, blinds us to solutions to the problems we must confront. There's nothing wrong with recognizing race. It's what we do with that knowledge that matters.

There's a pernicious false choice in the vaccine priority debate — we must reject it

On the front end, Black Americans have been dying at a disproportionately high rate from Covid-19. On the back end, Black Americans have been receiving vaccination shots at a pace far below that of other groups. It's even more disturbing when you consider that some of the groups targeted early in the vaccination process—health care workers and other hospital personnel—are diverse, which should have translated into diverse distribution. It just underscores that the reality of race, how it is lived rather than talked about, is much more complex than many understand or want to acknowledge.

The elderly should be prioritized for vaccinations, particularly those in nursing homes, where covid has run rampant for months, because deaths are concentrated among the elderly. As we age, our bodies naturally become more susceptible to disease of all kinds. Everything being equal, covid is much more likely to ravish a 75-year-old body than a 25-year-old one. There's no real dispute about that. But thinking in terms of age alone will not solve the racial disparity in vaccination. More than that, it will guarantee that people who don't have to get sick and die will anyway.

The elderly are on average much whiter than other cohorts for a variety of reasons. White people make up about 77 percent of the 65-and-older population compared to being just below 60 percent of the population overall. While the racial life expectancy gap has narrowed and the elderly population is expected to greatly diversify by 2060, as of now Black people die younger for a variety of reasons that are linked to this country's ugly-racist history which continues affecting us. That's not a call to deprioritize the elderly and let old white people die, as some have cynically claimed. It's a reminder that there are multiple-significant factors at play and they all must be dealt with—including race. We don't have to choose between age and race and shouldn't; but neither should we pretend that focusing on age to the exclusion of everything else is the most humane or effective way to vaccinate the population against a once-in-a-century pandemic.

There are no perfect solutions for fighting this virus. It's impossible to protect every vulnerable person before vaccinating anyone who supposedly faces little to no risk. And individualism doesn't work when you are trying to corral an invisible virus in a population of 330 million people with a supply that isn't yet robust enough to serve everyone immediately. Still, it is becoming glaringly obvious that the racial disparities that have long plagued this country are hampering our vaccination efforts. Take Chicago, where the population is about one-third Black, one-third Latino, one-third White. In that city, 38 percent of the covid dead are Black—but only 15 percent of those vaccinated so far have been Black. Similar disparities can be found among the Latino population, while it is the reverse for Whites, who make up 20 percent of the residents but 53 percent of those who have already received a vaccine shot.

There has been passionate debate from many about the need to ignore race in this calculus. They deride any such discussion as "social justice" and "wokeness" run amok. Over the past several days, I tried to engage a few of them, asked what should be done about Black people being disproportionately hurt while being left behind by vaccination efforts. None of them had a good answer. The closest I came to receiving one was from Kmele Foster, a co-host of The Fifth Column podcast who recently had a much-discussed appearance on the Bill Maher show on HBO.

"Develop effective policy" was his initial response before suggesting any "moron" (he claims to have not been referring to me) should understand that focusing on the elderly, where most deaths are occurring, would automatically mean those dying disproportionately would be helped the most.

Except that his logic doesn't hold up. The elderly are whiter, meaning that focusing on age to the exclusion of other factors, like race, would only deepen the vaccination racial divide—which has precisely been happening. It's why Black people can be dying at disproportionate rates and still remain at the back of the proverbial line for the cure. How is that not immoral? How is it not an outrage?

This is where the push for colorblindness reveals a kind of bankruptcy. It has wonderful answers for academic exercises, thought experiments and debates, but no realistic ones for the messy reality that is race. What we face is too serious to accept that kind of status quo, which has once again rendered Black lives less valuable than others.


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