Town hall series explores how COVID lays bare racial issues


The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Health Science Diversity are hosting a series of virtual events that examine the relationship between COVID-19 and recent incidents of racism and discrimination.


Chancellor Pat Gallagher today said he’s asked Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner to reach out to student leaders to find a way to address “another one of these incredibly tragic chapters in our country’s troubled history between race and justice, with what is happening in Minnesota.”

The death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has sparked nationwide protests, some of which have turned violent.

Gallagher said he’d like to “find a way to sort of be together despite the distance and show solidarity and support. The deep frustration and anger that’s there is real. I just would love to see us move to making real meaningful change to the underlying problem rather than just keep going through this cycle over and over again. We saw it in Pittsburgh just recently with the Antwon Rose case. There’s this depressing sense of déjà vu.

“We have to find a way to, I think, both express solidarity and frustration, but more importantly, how can we start to contribute to making a real and lasting change.”

The most recent event in the “This Is Not Normal: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19” town hall series on May 27, examined recent events of xenophobia and hate crimes that have taken place during the pandemic.

Panelists included James Huguley, interim director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the Pitt School of Social Work; Lu-In Wang, a Pitt law professor; Sheila Velez Martinez, the director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the School of Law; and Waverly Duck, an associate sociology professor at Pitt.

Huguley began the presentation reminiscing about President Barack Obama’s election, where many in the news media claimed that the U.S. was moving into a “post-racial” phase.

“Lots of us in the scholarly and activist communities of color knew that that wasn’t accurate,” Huguley said. “And we’re reminded more and more of that every day, and people have talked about how COVID really lays bare a lot of the racial issues and a very strong undercurrent in our country.” 

Incidents of xenophobia against Chinese people and other Asians have increased during the pandemic, Huguley said, while protests and civil unrest has erupted in several parts of the country following a series of police officer-involved killings in Minneapolis and Louisville.

But racism and white supremacy have long been present in the country’s DNA before these recent events, Huguley said.

The U.S. has a history of racist policies against Asians, Huguley said, citing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented Chinese immigration and spurred mass murders of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Another example was the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  

The policies have had lasting effects on the country’s immigration laws, according to Velez Martinez, who added that the “Asian-American immigrant experience has shaped immigration law probably more than that of any other group.”

Wang later discussed the motivations behind hate crimes, which are complex and inflict lasting trauma on victims and the communities they belong to.

Hate crimes are more than “deviant, irrational acts of mentally unstable individuals that reflect their personal beliefs or attitudes or their fringe or extreme ideologies,” Wang said.

“Targeting or selecting someone from a particular group is socially reinforced,” Wang said. “And the perpetrators’ acts often are rational, although in a very perverse way, because perpetrators frequently are motivated by a desire to win.”

Some researchers, she said, have found a correlation between xenophobic rhetoric from President Donald Trump and other high-level government officials and a recent increase in hate crimes. Some examples include labeling the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.”

This rhetoric designates groups of people as potential “targets” for perpetrators of hate crimes.

“And the connection is that perpetrators will depend on and then perpetuate that designation and thereby depend on and then perpetuate the harmful effects of hate crimes,” Wang said.

The virtual town halls began with the Health, Law Enforcement, and the Media panel discussion via zoom on May 13.

The next town hall will be held on June 10 and will discuss Faith in an Age of Pandemic. The final discussion, Holes in the Safety Net: The Forgotten Needs of People with Disabilities Under Quarantine will take place on June 24.

Ron Idoko, the diversity and multicultural program manager for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said the virtual town halls provide an opportunity to promote open discussion around difficult topics related to the pandemic and race.

“What we are accustomed to, in terms of the amount of inequity that we see in some of our systems, that this is really ramped up and that we have to be even more mindful of how people are being affected, especially when you hear the numbers in terms of the disparity of death,” Idoko said.

For previous recordings of the town halls and to register for future events, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion town hall series website. 

Additionally, the office is inviting members of the Pitt community to submit their art, whether it be painting, writing or performing for the Art of Diversity Showcase. The deadline for submissions is July 6, and awardees will be announced at the 2020 Diversity Forum on July 29.

For more information about the showcase, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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