Why we need a culturally responsive — not a colourblind — approach to COVID-19

Anthony N. Morgan, one of Canada’s leading racial justice lawyers, on how to achieve social reform in the face of COVID-19.
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Like Americans, Canadians have been fed “the great equalizer” branding in spades from mansions to tubs about the virus known as COVID-19 that quarantines all and harms without discrimination. But Anthony Morgan, one of Canada’s leading racial justice lawyers spots different writings on the wall. 

“If you support those who are the most vulnerable, you stand a greater chance of addressing everyone’s needs,” says Morgan. “Canada has too often spoken to multiculturalism and diversity with marketable platitudes.”

As an award-winning racial justice advocate, lawyer, and speaker, Morgan is just one of many who see the disproportionate number of racialized communities affected by COVID-19 as no fluke, but rather an indictment of historic neglect by systems and government. 

In October 2019, Morgan pitched a culturally responsive approach during a TEDxToronto talk titled “How Tupac inspires better policing” to addressing social reform through the African concept known as Sankofa: a practice of learning from the past in order to inform the future. Since then, COVID-19 has touched everyone to the added detriment of the powerless, further adding pressures for societal changes that can benefit all. 

Urbanology had a chance to chat with Morgan over the phone and revisit this talk within the context of COVID-19 to explore some possible solutions. 

In the light of COVID-19, I want your perspective on how Canada stands to improve socially.

As a citizen doing advocacy, especially for Black folks, what I can say, is that there’s a long way to go when it comes to Black folks at a municipal, provincial, federal [level], and frankly the non-profit sector, as well. While everyone is working as hard as they can, I do think there are some obvious gaps that are not being captured. For example, we’ve had such a difficult time getting race-based COVID-19 data in Canada to help us understand who is being most impacted by COVID, despite knowing that in the United States there’s consistent data showing that it’s Black people who are the most disproportionately victimized group. That’s a stain on our record towards a Canadian commitment to multiculturalism, and I’m truly comfortable in saying that. 

These gaps are considerable, and at the risk of sounding alarmist, it can be deadly in terms of not being able to get to people in need or their needs not being properly heard, met or taken serious when they’re presenting them in a Black body or racialized body to a health-care professional. We just have to be better. 

Colour-blindness has no record of advancing justice.

In April, Ontario’s Chief Medical Health Officer David Williams said that separate race-based data around the effects of COVID-19 aren’t necessary. Isn’t that the kind of attitude which often adds to the lack of effective reform?

Absolutely. Colour-blindness has no record of advancing justice. This is why anybody who’s committed to evidence-based policy making, especially in a time of crisis, see it as a no brainer to develop, enhance, or invent systems to ensure that we’re tracking, monitoring and publicly recording this information. We are a democracy at the end of the day. We have a right to know as civilians whether or not we are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 or any illness. If the government has access or can create it, it has an obligation to do so. Thankfully the city of Toronto recognized the gaps in [the province’s] position and recently has adopted an approach to collecting this data. Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, but before it was published, CityNews reported that Ontario announced it would begin to collect race-based statistics.

Expanding on that, your TedXTed talk late last year largely covered the idea of a better way towards social reform, and how the African principle of Sankofa could help with that. Can you revisit that in the light of what’s happening in our cities right now?

Sure. Sankofa is the principle to reach back and get it. This new context of COVID-19 is making me think about how our Black people and communities who have always experienced a level of marginalization, neglect, and under resourcing, have always found collective ways to maintain their humanity to ensure that their needs and well-being are being met. Even before COVID, Black people had these very active chat lines on WhatsApp for example, which was a great way to connect with folks from the diaspora and just folks here to make sure that we were all checking up and lifting the spirits of each other. This is part of the principle that Sankofa captures, much like the practice of Sunday dinner among some Black communities — making sure that the family is fed and come together with the opportunity to reground itself. 

When you apply the Sankofa principle like learning from the past, what would you say we’re learning or can learn societally speaking with what’s going on?

We are only as well as the people next to us and connected to us. That school of thought that COVID doesn’t discriminate, we’ve seen the disproportionate impact, we know it has disproportionate effect on folks. COVID is helping us see that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable people, so people in jail, people in detention centres, people in nursing homes, people in group homes, folks living in shelters. If these folks aren’t safe, then none of us are safe and I think with Sankofa, with the way in which it inspires or advocates or calls for a collective well-being and understanding the importance of supporting and maintaining that, I think we’re seeing the importance and power of that as everyone’s affected by COVID.

Canada has too often only spoken to multiculturalism and diversity with marketable platitudes.

When you hear about the statistics of Black people being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, what are some of the issues that go through your mind that need to be addressed?

One of the primary ones is about representation and critical representation. The fact that our leaders — political and health-care leaders, even policing and law enforcement leaders — have overwhelmingly not been from our communities, I would argue probably has something of a connection with the fact that these are the communities who are also being disproportionately impacted. If we had more Black folks in the position of leadership, they might have, and likely would have, organized their systems that care for these vulnerable communities better — and not just Black communities, but all communities who experience vulnerability. Thinking about the principle of targeted universalism. For instance, if you support those who are the most vulnerable, then you create the highest chances of addressing everybody’s needs. Canada has too often only spoken to multiculturalism and diversity with marketable platitudes, but it hasn’t translated enough into equitable outcomes. This experience of shut down is going to last quite long largely because we’ve neglected, ignored, and underserved the communities who have needed the most support and services. 

While we’ve under-resourced critical services like health care, childcare, education, mental health, and housing, we’ve at the same time dramatically over-resourced policing services as I mentioned in my talk. While there are admittedly places that have unfortunately experienced a spike of crime at the moment, overall, if you take a global perspective, there’s a lot less policing that’s being done and needed. But those services maintain those resources, which is a very serious problem.  

It’s hard to overlook that many Canadians may become more open to giving law enforcement even more powers to criminalize certain communities in the name of public health protection as a result of this virus. How do we deal with that? It’s almost like a digression of progress.

I agree, and it’s because we’ve become so reliant on systems of policing and enforcement as ways of addressing what are really social or health-care concerns. That inertia continues in this time of crisis. If we were to develop new patterns, ideas, thoughts and approaches that make us properly fund our other social services, then our first thought wouldn’t be that we need to call the police, it would be we need to call a doctor, therapist, or social worker to address these concerns.

I know you have a brother on the inside. Do you feel like concerns about people who are incarcerated are being heard?

The folks who are raising their voices the loudest, are to some extent being heard, but not fully understood. There has been some effort to release incarcerated individuals slowly for example, but it’s been indicative of how slow the process often is, and how little transparency there’s been to the process. When folks get out, what services are they going to? Are there specific supports being identified and properly resourced? They’re out there, but again, we mostly fund what we fancy. People being released aren’t being given significant support to protect their well-being.

The people who live along all the different axes — they have a wealth of knowledge and ideas about how to advance a society.

How is your brother? Is he OK?

Thanks for asking. He’s alright. There’s a lot of anxiety on the inside. One of the challenges has been … they’re making a lot of changes and not explaining them ahead. For instance, my brother just told me yesterday that instead of providing opportunities to get food twice a week, they just, unannounced, said you’re only going to be allowed to purchase food once a week. Your weekly stipend that you get to do so is not going to increase. They haven’t explained, for instance, how folks who have medical conditions are going to get access to the food they need now that they have less of an opportunity to grab that food and with the same amount of money. Or just suddenly guards began showing up with masks and some folks who are not as connected to their families or to the outside world were confused and it was creating anxiety … Those kind of anxieties and uncertainties in a place that could already be a powder keg for tension makes everyone on the inside unsafe … they’re incarcerated in these tight enclosed spaces where some are hearing [this virus] could actually be deadly — it’s creating a different kind of tension … And I know it’s not unique to my brother’s institution. I’ve heard similar things [about other institutions].

I’m going to be pessimistic with this question. If communities of colour can’t immediately count on the government to focus on these problems, how can we as people speed up the process? It was hard enough before COVID-19.

I’d say we have to collectively organize. We have to come together amongst ourselves and get very loud — amplifying each other’s voices and use our own voices. I also want to stress people have been doing that, but we need more of that because we’re seeing that these systems are not being adequately responsive to our needs. And so we have to make it almost impossible for them to turn away. And the way you do that is bring people together to say these are the needs in the Black community, in the various sectors of the Black community, also recognizing we are not a monolith, no community is. But then also saying, OK, how do our needs translate to what Indigenous communities are facing? How do we build with them? How do we build with queer and trans folks? With all the intersections. The people who live along all the different axes — they have a wealth of knowledge and ideas about how to advance a society. We should be thinking about these people. How do we reach out to them and say, OK, in your communities as far as what you’ve experienced and seen, what does enforcement look like? How do you keep people safe, healthy, fed?

As someone with activism and human rights interests, a lot of that power comes from the ability to be seen by those in power. How do folks like yourself contend with that given our current circumstances of being quarantined?

I think there’s an element of creative destruction that’s beautiful and powerful. You can’t meet at Queens Park, but if I come together with some clever folks and we have the meeting of hard work and a bit of luck and creative thinking, we could probably create an online forum that makes our voice more powerful and more people drawn to it than many politicians who have been monopolizing space and control and even corporate leaders who have been monopolizing space and control over things that have had dramatic impact on us. I’m not one of those people that has a fanciful idea about the ways in which social media makes everything better for everyone (laughs). But I’m saying that there’s a different kind of opportunity there … At the end of the day, yes those folks still hold the power but, in this way, I retain a critical hope, but a hope nonetheless. I do believe in the chance there’s a prospect for creating a new world. 

Artwork by Carmya Sa’d supplied by Anthony Morgan

Noel Ransome is a freelance culture and entertainment journalist. As a former full-time writer for VICE and Associate Editor of Urbanology, he’s covered everything from getting Joel Schumacher to apologize for Batman and Robin, to the dissection of various societal and racial concerns. If there’s a conversation to be had, he wants to start it.