The pandemic of white supremacy has plagued us since 1492 and it’s showing no signs of stopping. Liberal New Yorkers like to give themselves a pat on the back because they attended a Black Lives Matter Rally over the summer or posted a black tile on their Instagram. White people often misinterpret white supremacy as killer cops getting away with murder or ICE putting kids in cages. Sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For the past year, as we’ve applauded working class New Yorkers as “heroes” and “essential,” hundreds of thousands of workers in New York – so-called “excluded” workers – have been denied any support from the federal government, just because of their immigration status or because they’d been caught up in our unjust system of mass incarceration. Yet Governor “I am the left” Cuomo didn’t include even a dime for these workers in his budget, and then fought to undermine the funding that Speaker Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did. Meanwhile the billionaire class has increased its wealth by almost $100 billion this past year.
It’s clear that the priorities of Governor Andrew Cuomo are not the Black and brown working people of this state, no matter how much he pretends they are or how many press conferences he stages with Hazel Dukes. His white, male, billionaire donors are his priority and the wellbeing of black and brown communities are his collateral damage. The Defender Service of Harlem literally had to sue New York State so that inmates in Rikers Island, where almost 90% of inmates are Black or Hispanic, could be eligible for COVID vaccines, three months after the first patients were eligible. This is white supremacy in action.
As a Black man and the co-founder of a nonprofit, Movers and Shakers, dedicated to telling the true history of our country I see white supremacy nearly every day. White supremacy in action is Cuomo naming Columbus Circle a landmark yet refusing to expand Black and Brown history in our state curricula. White supremacy in action is protecting the interests of banks and landlords while failing to cancel the rent during a pandemic. White supremacy in action is protecting the interests of the most wealthy in this city while denying relief to its most vulnerable and valuable citizens.
I spent 20 days on hunger strike in solidarity with excluded workers and the previously incarcerated denied relief because just reading about what solidarity looked like wasn’t enough and isn’t enough. The people who I’m striking with have buried loved ones due to COVID, have survived it themselves, continue to rely on community food assistance, and are months behind in rent. Many of them have had health issues before the strike and are risking their lives because they are at their wit’s end. An excluded workers fund is a moral statement from the state that we must take care of our people as they have cared for us. For many this funding is the difference between life and death, housing and homelessness, dignity and poverty.
They say that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable. In a pandemic of unprecedented scale in our lifetimes, millions of office workers stayed safely at home, started sourdough kits, watched every show on Netflix and bought all the toilet paper that could fit in their cars.
At the same time, the federal government sent less than $5,000 to “qualified adults” and said good luck. Black and brown bodies flooded New York’s makeshift morgues and mass graves at the height of the pandemic. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, risked their lives every day and received zero dollars of government support. Millions of essential workers clocked in to work in a world that wasn’t equipped to deal with COVID. Essential businesses were oftentimes neglecting the safety of their staff by failing to provide PPE or create proper sanitation protocols, all while making record profits and refusing hazard pay. Our jails are full of black and brown people who would not have contracted COVID if they had money for bail.
We are in the richest city in the richest country in human history. We shouldn’t have to starve ourselves to demand funding that people deserve as humans and have earned through their labor. If we really want to uproot white supremacy, we must start with real support for our most vulnerable.
Glenn Cantave is CEO of Movers and Shakers, a nonprofit that uses technology to write black and brown narratives into curricula. He is also a member of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.