There is Nothing Unprecedented About 2020

Let’s Stop Acting Like It

Pundits and talking heads on the news often call the events of 2020 unprecedented. But, are they? Or, are they just so overwhelming that we would like to believe that we must be facing something unique simply because we can’t boil it down to the simple sound bites to which we have become accustomed?

There is a well-known George Santayana adage that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Calling the situation unprecedented is a tacit ask of us to excuse our leaders from the kind of complex analysis that this moment demands. To any data professional who embraces data literacy, this is unacceptable. But, as a father and citizen watching crisis give way to civil unrest and rage, it is worse. It is heartbreaking.

The truth is that nothing that we are living through in 2020 is, in fact, unprecedented. Although the COVID-19 outbreak is devastating by almost any measure, the Spanish Flu of 1918 affected nearly one-third of the world’s population and caused an estimated 50 million deaths, including 675,000 in the United States. And, there are important lessons, from the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s silence on the spread of the disease, to the effectiveness of masks and social distancing, to the risk of second and third waves of the virus unleashed, in part, by parades to celebrate victory in World War I. These lessons are key to a more effective response and many state and local governments have been poring over sites like the Influenza Encyclopedia to see the many details of the outbreak and responses in detail by location. Take the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for instance, which introduced a comprehensive, data-driven, four-stage re-opening plan that systematically addresses lessons from the Spanish Flu.

But, as 2020 starts to take shape, the year that truly jumps out of the history books for comparison is not 1918, but 1968. This year similarly featured a global pandemic with suspected Chinese origins (the so-called Hong Kong flu) that would kill one million people worldwide. But, the comparison that draws the most striking comparison is the social unrest in the United States rooted in racial injustice. The year was characterized by sit-ins, marches, protests and violence amidst the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the murder of a 17-year-old Black boy in Oakland, California, by police. The era produced one of the most iconic images of all time – Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black power salute on the medal stand at the Olympics as a sign of protest that feels now like an eerie foreshadowing of Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protests.

The passage of the Civil Rights and Gun Control Acts of 1968 were meant to usher in meaningful change in response to the outcry, but they were clearly inadequate to heal the wounds of 200 years of inequity toward the Black community. If you are interested in the remedies that were proposed and rejected in 1968, I recommend this New York Times Opinion piece and this separate Time Magazine retrospective that outline the findings of the U.S. Presidential Kerner Commission, which famously stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Like 2020, 1968 was an election year and the U.S. population decided to embrace the “law and order” candidate. The nation rejected the difficult task of dealing with racial injustice, and now we find ourselves here, over 50 years later, repeating history faced with the same circumstances, the same root causes, and the same options to move forward.

This is a blog about data literacy, not history, so let me move on to my point. Each of us has a moral obligation to understand the nature of our current situation by careful examination of facts and analytics over memes, sound bites and Facebook posts. In short, this moment demands our data literacy. As such, I would like to recommend several pieces that have helped inform my thinking on this topic for your consideration. For those interested in the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impact on the Black population, I recommend this 2018 piece by the Sentencing Project, which contains extensive research on policing and the judiciary with specific recommendations related to minimum sentencing, the treatment of drug-related crimes, and the use of cash bail among other things, which have shown statistically significant racial bias. I also recommend this analytical study posted on SpringerLink that demonstrated that Black youth are seven times as likely to be arrested in the United States. And, finally, this 2017 publication from the United States Sentencing Commission outlining the statistical differences of sentencing based on race.

If you are looking for issues of institutional racism broader than police and justice, a simple Google search on discrimination will point you to a number of fascinating studies, but I wanted to highlight one in particular, a 2019 blog post by the Economic Policy Institute, that analyzes the correlation between housing discrimination and wealth between Black and white citizens. This piece cites some scholarly works about the three decades that preceded the Fair Housing accommodations of the Civil Rights Legislation of 1968 and their long-term impacts on today. And, for an understanding of the historical connection between race and criminality, I recommend 13th, a heartbreaking Ava DuVernay documentary that looks at the roots of the U.S. culture of mass incarceration through the lens of the 13th amendment to the Constitution that granted slaves their freedom.

This moment is not about politics, and this post is not meant to be political but rather a call to become educated on topics that have been too easy for White Americans to ignore. This moment calls for study, introspection, critical thoughts, and bold new ideas. But, let us all hold each other accountable for facts above ideology – as citizens, leaders and caretakers of the future. In 2020, we have experience with viruses that have landed on our shores from abroad, and we know the policies that have allowed the spread of pandemic viruses and the policies that slowed and eradicated them. Similarly, we know the policies and injustice that has created the racial strife in which we now find ourselves, and we have extensive research at our fingertips on how to start the healing. We must recall the words of Dr. King’s famously paraphrased abolitionist minister Theodore Parker when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let us each apply the lessons of the past to bend that arc more urgently, with conviction and passionate action – through our words and deeds, through how we treat one another, and in what we expect of and demand from our leaders in all walks of life.

Our own @JoeDosSantos shares his thoughts about the historical parallels that make 2020 not an unprecedented one for #racialinjustice or #pandemics. Read his blog post and learn what everyone can do to help heal our nation. #BLM


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