Time to Reverse Centuries Of Oppression

There’s nothing new about pandemics and national crises, as Americans have faced many catastrophic events in our last 120 years, such as those described eloquently by Chip Conley in his recent blog post, “Where’s Your Gumption?” In it, Conley writes about  devastating occurrences that an individual born in 1900 would have experienced across a century — events that led to the deaths of over 125 million people worldwide. A centenarian’s way of life, outlook on society and ability to meet his or her basic needs would be dramatically influenced by two world wars, multiple regional military conflicts, outbreaks of the Spanish Flu and smallpox and the Great Depression.

Those born in the early 1900s were called to endure much. And now, in the year 2020, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic called to work at home, assist our children with remote learning, be creative, survive isolation and loneliness. Then, comes another senseless death of a Black man, George Floyd. This cannot be looked upon as a one-off accidental death, because it is not. Instead, it’s 400 years of oppression spilling into the streets and onto the screens.

Consider these 2016 findings by the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances: The median net worth of whites is 10 times that of Black Americans; for families who have a zero or negative net worth, the incidence for Black families is twice that of whites; and, not coincidentally, this is the same ratio of Black people versus white people who have less than a high school education.

Why should I, a white 70-year-old male with severe disabilities, care about Black oppression when members of my disability community remain horribly oppressed today? Because it’s oppression, again. Disabled Americans languish in COVID-ridden residential facilities. We work at such dismal labor force participation rates that the nearly 40 percent disparity between working-age disabled and non-disabled adults has remained essentially unchanged since the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 1990 passage. The ADA has been of little assistance in our pursuit of economic justice.

If disabled adults also are Black, and female, and LGBTQIA, and elderly (65 years or older), the compounding effects are extraordinarily oppressive. Members of minority populations are at increased risk of becoming disabled as they age, due to poverty, lack of access to adequate medical care, housing and nutritious food, and violence in areas in which they live.

I care because, just as Black people have seen little progress in hundreds of years, disabled Americans have seen little to no progress. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the health care rationing that accompanies it, reinforce the existence of a societal hierarchy of whose lives are most valued in America — and it’s not disabled Americans or Black Americans, and certainly not disabled Black Americans. And, if you are a Black American female and/or LGBTQIA, you are so far down and oppressed, only the lucky will survive. At the top of the hierarchy is white Americans, and I’m disgusted by it. Just think of synagogues where Jewish men and women, boys and girls, have been targeted, murdered, by white Christian Americans.

I agree with Gen. James Mattis that our president has fueled divisiveness in America more than any modern-era president; I agree with General Colin Powell that this president is a pathological liar, bent on securing power at almost any price.

I’m angry over the fueled injustice and hypocrisy of our national leader. I’m angry that so many people, elderly and disabled people, have lost their lives unnecessarily to COVID-19, and our response was far too slow. I’m angry that health equity and social justice allow health care rationing of ventilators and medical services that disproportionately harmed and killed vulnerable, disabled Americans.

Tying these strands together — our 120 year history of pandemics and wars, the devastation of COVID and the repeated devaluation of Black lives — it’s clear we need new leadership, a new vision. We need new models of social equity and justice, and we need an entirely new social structure that values contributions to well-being, that delivers results, that respects the technology that makes us all more productive, in control of our own destinies, and places us all on an equal platform from which we can achieve and be rewarded for helping humankind rather than only ourselves.

I take a cue from the Business Roundtable, which created a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 CEOs who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders — seeing a broader responsibility for its existence and embracing all people regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and disability.

The time to take real action towards reversing centuries of oppression is now and long overdue.

John D. Kemp is the President and CEO of The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School, as well as a 2019-2020 Encore Public Voices fellow.

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