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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #027 – Walker

By CEID Blogger, on 15 June 2020

COVID-19 and the stubbornness of ‘race’

By Sharon Walker

Over the past two to three months, the UK public has consumed a vast number of public awareness campaigns streamed through our televisions and other devices aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. These campaigns have an educative role and are often creative and entertaining despite their serious message. During this period, I have also yearned for another kind of educational intervention aimed at the general population to engage with the re-occurrence of the word ‘race’ in the national press and other news outlets. The intervention would involve tackling the unavoidable reinforcement of the idea that humans belong to different racial groups. However, what would a response of this nature resemble? And who would be involved – geneticists, historians, philosophers of race, etc.? Let me explain.

The idea that the coronavirus does not discriminate has been repeatedly challenged as statistics show that different factors contribute to an individual’s likelihood of dying from the virus. For example, a recent Public Health England report shows that those diagnosed with COVID-19 aged 80 or over are seventy times more likely to die than those under 40. Similarly, males are more likely to die than females.

An increased risk of dying is also the case for those from Black Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. As the same Public Health England report states: ‘People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Blackethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British’.

A plethora of media reporting has accompanied these statistics on the increased BAME risk, expressing concerns over social inequalities and injustices, deftly brought to the fore by the virus. Headlines have included:

Coronavirus tracked: How Covid-19 deaths in the UK compare by race and ethnicity Independent (9 June)

Omission of air pollution from report on Covid-19 and race ‘astonishing’ The Guardian (7 June)

Is race the deciding factor? Channel 4 News (9 June, article sub-heading)

On reading these headlines, my attention turns to the innocuous use of the word ‘race’.

I was particularly conscious of its use on reading a recent Guardian article. Quoting the Office for National Statistics, the article states: ‘These results show that the difference between ethnic groups in COVID-19 mortality is partly a result of socioeconomic disadvantage and other circumstances, but a remaining part of the difference has not yet been explained’. What does the author mean by ‘not yet explained’?

The statement could simply be speculative or communicate a certain perplexity. However, the words are now out there, floating around in the public imagination along with other articles evoking race.  But, far from merely floating, there is a great deal to which they can attach themselves. As the geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford reflects in his publication How to Argue With a Racist, ideas of human difference have long been understood in racial terms and are engrained in the conventional wisdom. As a result, it is very easy for references to race and things ‘not yet explained’ to tap into these ways of thinking.

We can imagine, for example, that although the biological basis for race has long been disproved, racial thinking remains stubborn to the point that many are no doubt wondering if the ‘not yet explained’ is due to differences in biological race. It is also worth noting that ‘ethnicity’ is no less innocent a word as it too is laden with notions of racial difference.

In raising these points, my aim is not to criticise those committed to social justice. Also, I do not deny that race ‘exists’ in the world as a social fact, impacting on the lives of many in very negative ways. This includes in life expectancy, access to healthcare, access to quality education and exposure to police brutality as witnessed by recent invents in the US with the killing of the African American, George Floyd, by a white police officer. Instead, my concern lies with how media reporting reifies the idea of racial differences. We read the word ‘race’ as we sip our tea, carelessly categorising different human populations in our minds.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Yet, I note that BAME campaigners and leaders alike have also expressed concern that the public focus, far from being on socioeconomic factors or structural racism, will be on genetic factors. A recent conversation with a friend also reaffirms these concerns. On mentioning that the total number of deaths in Barbados from COVID-19 is seven, my friend expressed surprise, since she thought that black people were at an increased risk of dying from the virus.  I sensed that reference to other influencing factors was not relevant here. Instead, the focus was on the blackness of the population. Like me, my friend has been exposed to the media reporting above.

The newspaper headlines and other media communications, therefore, have a profound influence on how we speak about and understand human difference – the BBC, for example, frequently uses the word race in its reporting.  Observing this period in our collective history, I ask, where are the voices able to knowledgeably engage with the public to counterbalance our adherence to thinking of populations in terms of racial differences? If we are not vigilant, our histories of divisive racial thinking will continue even as we seek to address the unequal impact of COVID-19.

Sharon Walker is a PhD candidate in the sociology of education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is also an organiser of The Politics of Representation Collective.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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