Published June 4, 2020
The massive demonstrations across America against racism and social injustice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police express a vision of the society that many Americans would like to see after the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, a UB urban studies expert says.
Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, says race and anti-racism — instead of terms such as diversity and inclusion — must return to the center of discussions about inequity in the United States.
“Race was the issue of the 20th century. Race and the color line is also the issue of the 21st century,” Taylor says. “Over the last decade, we have replaced conversations around race with conversations around inclusion and diversity, which shifts the conversation and issue away so that we don’t have to deal with all of those complex issues that are related to grappling and dealing with race. Inclusion and diversity in my view has been nothing more than a smokescreen to marginalize the discussions of race and, in particular, the issues facing African Americans.
“The battle that we’re confronted with now is the constant divisions that we will face over the question of, ‘What kind of post-COVID-19 world do we want?’” Taylor adds. “The American people are not interested in going back to that old world. That old world is gone, and nothing that we can say or do can bring us back to the pre-COVID-19 world, so we’re caught in this kind of purgatory, this kind of transitional moment. What you’re seeing on the streets is people articulating a vision of the type of society that they want to see afterwards.
“And understand,” he continues, “that what is fundamentally different about this is people are risking their lives and their health. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and people are out in the streets. It’s an articulation and an expression of a vision of the type of society that people want when this pandemic ends. And people have let it be known that they are prepared to fight for that.”
In addition to his role as a professor of urban and regional planning, Taylor is director of the UB Center for Urban Studies, an associate director of the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute and a member of the African American Health Equity Task Force in Buffalo. His research focuses on a historical and contemporary analysis of distressed urban neighborhoods, social isolation, and race and class issues among people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos.
Taylor says having conversations about diversity and inclusion is no longer enough. Race and racism need to return to become central in how institutions — ranging from the police and news media to universities and the health care sector — talk about and address social justice, he says.
For example, “There are these predominantly white science departments and medical centers that years later still have no or very few black folks or Puerto Ricans,” he says. “And this is one of the reasons the anger is so deep. As one young lady said: ‘They were out here marching during the civil rights movement. And here we are again. What’s going on?’”
Taylor believes that the protests can lead to lasting change. He says groups in many communities — including Buffalo — have been working on solutions to policing problems and other issues of racial injustice for years, and that policymakers must now listen to those voices and implement new policies.
“COVID-19 has snatched the mask off of America the beautiful, and revealed disfigurement as a characteristic of this country,” he says. “It’s created a common experience of people across the racial divide that allowed them to see the commonalities of pain and misery.
“So we won’t go back to the old world. We have a vision; that’s what they’re talking about — saying that enough is enough. So I think this is an exciting moment and period that we’re in, and a very beautiful thing to watch, as you see people from across the racial and class spectrum come together demanding change. We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1970s.”