Chaos & The Covid Crisis

Chaos & The Covid Crisis

Through the  hive-mind of social media I was reminded this morning on LinkedIn that yesterday was my third work anniversary at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies. It just so happened at that moment I was deep in thought on a series of 12 sessions I am preparing for my summer class called Outdoors For All.

Over the course of four weeks my students and I take a long look back in time at the racial disparities that separate those who spend time in nature and those who do not. The central focus of my 2014 book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors”, this divide typically reveals itself as an apparent under-representation of people of color in the fields of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. We discover and explore the enduring history of so-called minorities and the roles they have played not only in the creation of our modern adventure culture, but in the defense and preservation of our civil liberties, basic freedoms that are at the core of American democracy.

Today as I compile my notes and research materials, I notice that we seem to be embroiled in a moment like many in our history. As the Covid-19 Pandemic unfolds across the globe, I believe that we are once again living through a chapter of the great American narrative in which people of color throughout the country are being disproportionately impacted by the ill effects of a national crisis. Ironically it appears that my students will have a front row seat for a real-time case study of racial discrimination in action. In communities from one end of our country to the another, black and brown folks are facing much higher rates of infection and death due to complications of the New Coronavirus. It just so happens that this pattern of contagion appears to follow the same path of discrimination that I follow in The Adventure Gap.

As I explained an article I wrote at the end of last year’s class, much of my recent work was inspired by a quote from National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin. She describes American history as “an ever-ascending spiral of chaos”. Having lived through much of the last century Ranger Soskin, now 97, has observed a repeating pattern of a gradual expansion of civil rights for marginalized members of our community, namely people of color. But those advancements are typically followed by a sudden contraction of liberties that results in a systematic targeting of those least able to defend themselves. In the midst of this pandemic we are watching it happen again.

For example, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the decisive engagement at the end of the American Revolution, between 10 and 15 percent of the Continental Army was made up of black men. They served throughout the war fighting for our national freedom. Despite their contributions, however, many of these brave soldiers and their families were forced back into slavery.

Under similar circumstances during the Civil War black men fought for their country. With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 freed black soldiers helped to turn the tide in favor of the Union Army, defeat the Confederacy and hold the nation together. But following the Plessy V.S. Ferguson Decision of 1896 legal discrimination under the doctrine of “separate but equal” forced many black Americans into a system of indentured servitude as sharecroppers or contract prison laborers, a form of slavery under another name.

After World War I, returning black veterans and their families were subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow era and treated as second-class citizen. The Tulsa Oklahoma Race Massacre of 1921 marked the collapse of Black Wall Street, the devastation of the post-reconstruction black middle class and the beginning of unbridled racially motivated violence.

In the years immediately following World War II many black men and women who served in a still segregated army came back from overseas to be denied the benefits of low interest home loans and free college tuition under the G.I. Bill. Without two of the primary vehicles for creating inter-generational wealth and social mobility, an entire generation of black people was deprived of their opportunity to pursue “the American Dream”.

The ever-ascending spiral of chaos is a pattern of oppression that perpetuates itself as we refuse to learn from the errors of our past. The discriminatory practice of redlining, which restricted where people of color in the U.S. could purchase homes, go to school, work and play continued as a legal practice from the 1930s under the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt through the 1960s. Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 redlining continued as a social convention of banks, real estate agencies and municipal governments right up through the middle of the Regan Admission in the 1980s.

The inability to buy homes in the newly emerging suburbs of North America had a profound social impact on people of color. They were effectively segregated into exclusively urban communities and discouraged from venturing into the outdoors. At recreational sites across our nation people of color were restricted from traveling freely into natural settings such as our national parks, forests, lakefronts, rivers and beaches. Even public pools in many areas around the country were deemed “for whites only”. Easy access to the natural world through outdoor recreation became the pastime of a privileged majority.

Intergenerational wealth was limited among communities of color with few opportunities for economic growth or stability. This ultimately resulted in far less disposable income and leisure time to pursue interests such as recreational travel. Add to all of this the persistent threat of racially motivated mistreatment or even violence and then starts to grow a widening divide between those who spend time in the outdoors and those who do not. And here begins the Adventure Gap.

When following a similar line of thought with regard to other aspects of human life in the United States, the Adventure Gap is mere a reflection of other more consequential disparities in our society. After each historical event that I share with my students there is a period of time during which the general public and federal government can work proactively to protect the interests of socially vulnerable members of our population. And in each example, they failed to take action. Instead people of color were subjected to what can only be described as social indifference. In truth the dominate culture simply does not care what happens to the vulnerable once the crisis is over.

Throughout our history, up to and including the present-day, black Americans with limited economic opportunities are more susceptible to a wide variety of environmental disparities and chronic medical conditions. High blood pressure, heart disease, hypertension and obesity are common ailments that can be prevented or reversed with proper diet, regular exercise and a reduced stress environment. But again, without the disposable income and leisure time to adopt and embrace a healthy, more active lifestyle Black Americans and other people of color are made highly vulnerable to an opportunistic disease like Covid-19.

B ecause of the global pandemic all classes at the UW Madison will be taught online. In the continuing efforts to slow the progression of the disease we are engaging in “social distancing”, staying out of the classroom and working through our computers over the internet. I am now reorganizing my course materials so that I can teach remotely via video conference technology. But this summer I am including in the discussion with my students how the current circumstances are part of the recurring pattern.

In the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 the ever-ascending spiral of chaos winds another lap around our history. Though racial discrimination is no longer codified into our justice system, it patently manifests itself in our lack of concern for the plight of marginalized communities. As hospital workers scramble to save the lives of their infected sick and dying patients, angry mobs protest the safer-at-home restrictions armed with assault rifles and in some communities waving Confederate flags. Sadly, those who object to measures that will protect the well-being of all Americans cannot see past the social circumstances that are making their lives inconvenient. Instead they insist that their way of life be protected and allowed to continue even at the sacrifice of the those mostly likely to contract the disease. Because many of these people are black and brown this expression of social indifference can only be described as racism.

As history repeats itself, the disproportionate impact of the new coronavirus on people of color is a clear indication of how disparities of financial wealth and social influence can put these populations at risk of infection.

“People can’t empathize with what it truly means to be poor in this country, to live in a too-small space with too many people, to not have enough money to buy food for a long duration or anywhere to store it if they did,” writes New York Times Columnist Charles Blow. “People don’t know what it’s like to live in a food desert where fresh fruit and vegetables are unavailable and nutrient-deficient junk food is cheap and exists in abundance.”

In his article “Social Distancing Is a Privilege”, Blow illustrates how these disparities can affect the way in which we live our lives, where we can go and what we can do. We have created a society in which the basic necessities of survival are not readily available to everyone. The disproportionate impacts of the new coronavirus detail in stark relief the devastating impact upon communities of color. Broad cross-sections of our population are relegated to high rates of chronic disease, limited prospects for economic development and the inability to take time off for rest and relaxation. Each of these are classic expressions of the same barriers that prevent marginalized communities from spending time in nature.

It is my hope that by exploring with my students the many disparities that created the Adventure Gap we can also address a variety of other social issues that now plague humanity. But if we truly intend to break the cycle, to end the spiral of chaos, we must first acknowledge the atrocities of the past. The institutions of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining were put in place deliberately to curtail the freedoms of black and brown Americans. We have to be equally deliberate in our efforts to embrace the full measure and consequences of our history, learn from our mistakes and aspire to do better not in the future, but at this very moment.

(Cover Art based on a photograph by Alyson McClaran—Reuters) :Health care workers stand in the street in counter-protest to hundreds of people who gathered at the State Capitol to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, 2020. 

Author’s Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this essay are my own and should in no way reflect the policies or positions of the sponsors and partners of The Joy Trip Project. They are meant to encourage and inspire an open discussion on the very complicated issues of our modern times. All constructive comments, questions and criticisms are welcome.