UGA Faculty Member to University Officials: COVID-19 Is a Black Lives Matter Issue

I understand that UGA and the University System of Georgia, along with the rest of the world, are facing difficult decisions balancing public health with the need to carry on working. Any rational response must face the fact that reopening will represent at best a risky experiment. If we fail to take all reasonable precautions, the likely outcome will be a severe curtailment of campus life, and possibly a second shutdown. This would represent a still greater harm, not only to the university, but also to the Athens community that depends on UGA for so much of our economic life.

I want to emphasize one particularly catastrophic risk that a failed opening would carry. As is by now widely known (apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race), the COVID-19 pandemic poses disproportionate risks for people of color, especially those who experience generational poverty. For this reason, the pandemic response in the USA is intertwined with the recent uprisings to insist that our society value black lives as fully human (nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/george-floyd-minneapolis.html).

Reopening of UGA is a black lives issue. UGA’s longstanding institutional failures to face our complicity with the impoverishment of black people in Athens was highlighted a few years ago in the botched excavations for the Baldwin Hall expansion. UGA’s merely symbolic response to that fiasco failed completely to acknowledge the generational poverty that is a glaring fact of life in Athens. If we experience a COVID-19 outbreak at UGA in the fall, there can be little doubt that the harm will fall hardest on black communities here. 

UGA’s reopening is poised to produce yet another historic stain on its relationship with these communities. It can be argued that reopening is the best policy for poor people in Athens, who depend on the health of the larger regional economy for survival. I am willing to accept this argument, but only if reopening is buttressed by enhanced precautions for these our colleagues. 

The mandatory wearing of masks on campus, a measure that UGA and USG administrators have so far refused to require, would be the barest minimum. Beyond this, there can be no substitute for honest and open discussions of further precautions, involving especially the sectors of the Athens community that stand to lose the most.

This piece orginally appeared in the Flagpole on June 24, 2020. 

UCWGA Tags