Close to Home: Privilege and inequity in the time of COVID

The ultimate manifestation of inequity is that, in the worst of times, the vulnerable suffer the most.

The data doesn't lie. COVID-19 is attacking our community. Its most powerful weapon is inequity.

Latinos represent 27% of our county, yet they constitute more than 60% of COVID-19 cases and a striking 95% of cases under 18 years old. A recent survey by First 5 Sonoma County found that 66% of Spanish-speaking households had lost all or some of their income, versus 35% of English-speakers. My family and I are a part of that latter group - impacted, but still financially stable. And while we may think of ourselves as proactive and prepared, we must acknowledge that something else allowed us to be stable and safe at home ... our privilege.

What a loaded word, privilege. It's invisible to those who experience the benefit of it every day, and painfully visible to those who lack it.

Some see the word as an affront to their hard work to pursue and achieve the American dream, but I see it differently. I acknowledge that the system in which I operate was built by people who look and speak like me, so it's open and accessible to me. But for those who speak another language, who don't have internet access or a home printer/scanner, it's not.

For those of us with our hands on the levers of this system, we must lift the veil that hangs over that invisible privilege, and take action now.

As the leader for the county's Latino outreach during this pandemic, I've had the privilege to work with Latino community leaders, to hear and hold the frustration, to feel the outrage and to experience their resolve and ganas to help us do better. Community activists, farmworkers, and business owners have lifted their voices en confianza y con esperanza - with belief and with hope.

That is why I write this message. I commit to do better, and I ask you to join me.

At the May 19 Board of Supervisors meeting, I proposed that the county create a home for this equity work inside our government and prioritize resources in our budget. My fellow supervisors all support enhancing our equity work, but we need to step forward through action in our policymaking, our emergency response and our recovery plans. We must commit to flatten the curve that has spiked in our Latino community. And we must formally commit to:

Immediately and dramatically increase testing, education and investigations with our Latino community partners to counteract this spike in testing.

Honor the ways in which our bilingual/bicultural employees bring value to our workforce, and to create a senior equity officer position and a centralized operation in the county to institutionalize this work.

Designing and disseminating culturally relevant information directly to community members through the channels they already rely on for trusted information. Translation does not equal connection.

Speaking clearly about diversity, equity and inclusion. We must adopt internal policies and hold ourselves accountable to real metrics. No more vague platitudes.

These proposals come from the voices of our community.

Leaders in the Latino community are not surprised by the numbers; they are saddened and outraged that we have not done enough.

I am outraged as well. And you should be, too.

The 2017 fires attacked us indiscriminately. Low-income apartments and million dollar homes burned with the same blind intensity. But while that disaster shared its destruction equally, the soot seeped into our community's existing cracks of inequity, highlighting them and widening them during the recovery. Federal disaster support from agencies like FEMA and the SBA flowed more readily toward the haves than the have-nots. The disaster didn't discriminate, but the recovery did.

This disaster is different. It discriminates because risk is weighted toward those who can't telecommute, order groceries from Instacart or apply for and receive unemployment benefits. It discriminates because if you live in multifamily housing, travel via carpool or public transportation, or work at an hourly wage, you're more at risk of contracting COVID-19. If you have no paid leave or health benefits, you're more at risk of financial ruin. All those measures disproportionately apply to Latino members of our community.

Some of you might read this and say, “Well this isn't just about race and language. People of all backgrounds, ethnicities and languages are getting hit.” Yes, I agree. However, our Spanish-speaking neighbors are getting sicker more and getting harder hit economically, and the numbers prove it. We have verified reports of newly homeless farmworkers sleeping outside, hungry families unable to access support programs and Latino-owned businesses on the brink of closing forever after having worked decades to turn sweat equity into financial equity. We must face those numbers, this inequity, and rise to this call to action.

I'm white. Born and raised here, I come from a family of grape growers and winemakers. I grew up speaking Spanish in the vineyards with my friends from Michoacan and Guadalajara. I went to quinceañeras and tried to dance to ranchera music. I lived a Spanish-speaking life while with the Peace Corps in Bolivia and later led efforts to expand federal programs in U.S.-Mexico border towns. Here at home, I've tried to use my Spanish to get vital information into the hands of all my brothers and sisters throughout our community. This is what an ally looks like. And I take that responsibility seriously and con honor.

But it's still not enough. I, you, and we need to do more.

Join me and take action today, tomorrow and forever. Open your eyes. Join me in donating to Undocufund, Corazon and VIDAS Legal Services. Demand more of yourself and our institutions. Agendize this issue in your meetings. Hold yourselves, each other and all of us accountable. And above all, follow the wise comment shared with me by a county employee, leader and friend:

“Supervisor Gore, we cannot make progress by calling people out. We need to call them in.”

Calling you in, folks. Here we go. Adelante, juntos. Forward, together.

James Gore represents the 4th District on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

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