Did you miss me? The change in administrations and the finally diminished threat of America’s first successful coup seemed like a good opportunity to catch up on some non-work things. The one-week hiatus was the first since The Will Bunch Newsletter launched last April — so hopefully today’s content will be twice as good. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because the American drama never stops.
The quest for coronavirus vaccine is corrupted by white privilege. When will we ever learn?
Kim Barlow of Fullerton, California, is one of the millions of Americans at her wit’s end in trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine for an elderly parent and other loved ones, and she finally vented in the time-honored fashion of a letter-to-the-editor to her hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. After days of frustration trying to get the coronavirus shot for her 66-year-old boyfriend, a Native American, and her 81-year-old mom, middle-class and white like her, she said she was infuriated to read that more upscale white people had overrun a low-income health center in South L.A. hoping to jump the line.
“I grew up poor in a hardworking blue-collar family, and I am deeply angry at and ashamed of those entitled white people driving their nice cars into South Los Angeles and waiting outside Kedren Community Health Center with their laptops and portable chairs looking for shots that are intended for the hardworking people of color, including many elderly and essential workers, who live in that neighborhood,” she wrote. “How dare you?”
The Times had just chronicled how an epidemiologist at that L.A. health center, Dr. Jerry P. Abraham, worked tirelessly to try and get shots into the arms of Black and brown people who didn’t have cars for the city’s large drive-thru centers like Dodger Stadium, who lacked speedy internet access to sign up online, or who don’t speak English or possess a driver’s license or immigration documents — even as he scowled at the line of leisure-time-rich folks in yoga pants with folding chairs, Apple laptops and “a sense of entitlement” who waited all day for a cancellation.
The situation in Southern California is hardly unique. As America slowly ups its vaccine game — now administering more than 2 million COVID-19 shots on some days, but with “herd immunity” and any end to the pandemic months away — experts are seeing faster rates of immunization in more white, upscale zip codes while poorer neighborhoods with larger Black and brown populations and higher rates of disease are lagging far behind.
Recent investigations by both the Associated Press and CNN across multiple states found white vaccination rates were often two times greater than those for African-Americans or Latinos, despite much higher death rates for the latter groups. CNN reported that — mirroring L.A. — a vaccine center in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, which is mostly Hispanic, was initially overrun by whites from outside the area because the sign-up was in English and geared towards the computer-savvy.
In a winter of American discontent, finding vaccination slots has become a national obsession and — for many affluent folks — the new college admissions. The Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers, who a few years back, were forking over big bucks for SAT prep and driving their kids to violin or fencing practice are now spending those spare hours on their iPad working the World Wide Web to find a vaccine place for mom or dad, and driving them for hours, or even days, to get there. Like the nation’s byzantine college search, the race for a vaccine rewards those with the most money, the fastest computer, the sharpest resources or professional connections, and our most priceless asset of all, free time.
This weekend, The Inquirer ran a remarkable story about three women on Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line who— after using their digital skills and some patience to line up vaccine appointments for their parents and other elderly family members — decided to make their newfound savvy available to complete strangers. Their Facebook group called PA COVID Vaccine Matchmaker has ballooned to more than 8,000 followers — Pennsylvanians who are desperate and willing to go anywhere in the state for a shot at pandemic freedom.
Maybe it’s because I’m not quite halfway through writing my forthcoming book about how the American way of college broke our politics, but the inequities in getting a COVID-19 shot and in getting an acceptance letter from a university seem eerily similar to me. In the case of college, decades of affirmative-action policy and law, financial aid and scholarships and other programs have watched as U.S. higher ed only grew less and less fair; one recent survey of 38 universities found they enrolled more students from The 1 Percent than from the bottom 60% of earners, combined. I’d be shocked if these kids’ grandparents weren’t getting vaccinated at similar rates.
Why is this? Some of it is blatantly systemic, as those wealthy kids benefit from better high schools, SAT test prep, and essay tutors, as well as admissions policies that benefit kids of alumni or donors (hello, Jared Kushner) or even athletes recruited for sports like squash or equestrian that aren’t played in low-income neighborhoods. But you could also call a big chunk of this “collective” — meaning adults with resources invest them heavily in their kids’ schooling or their mom’s coronavirus shot, which seems benign, normal and even loving on the ground but which from 35,000 feet maps out as massive bias. These mighty rivers are the forces creating the flood we too often fail to name as white privilege — even when the proof that education, health care and other key areas of American life are tilted unfairly toward whites, especially the affluent, is undeniable.
What’s the solution? In the case of the vaccines, it looks like government — not intentionally, but certainly thoughtlessly — designed systems that technically seemed equitable but which in reality inspired if not demanded people to try to rig them, creating large disparities. They should have leveled the sides by tilting the field — tripling the number of vaccine stations in low-income neighborhoods, making them not only accessible by car but easier to reach by mass transit or on foot, with signups that don’t require the newest Macbook Pro and with lots of instruction in Spanish and other languages. If Major League Baseball can put runners on second base to start the 10th inning, surely the United States can award an extra base or two to the people who’ve suffered the worst so far from COVID-19.
Yo, do this
I learned so much recently watching the remarkable Regina King-directed One Night in Miami — including how little I knew about the late great R&B icon of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Sam Cooke. Luckily this is 2021 so of course there’s a “doc” for that — The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, streaming on Netflix. The film not only puts a new spin on Cooke’s bizarre shooting death by a seedy motel’s clerk in late 1964, but also shows the perils for a creative Black man actually trying to do it “his way” in the era of Sinatra but also MLK and Malcolm X.
You may have noticed that I tend to obsess over the history and culture of the 1960s. I’ve been broadening my horizons with a book about a completely different era — the 1970s. Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland is the fourth and final installment of his sweeping history from a mostly liberal perspective of how American conservatism survived a near-death experience at the dawn of the 1960s to rise up through Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and finally The Gipper himself. But Perlstein makes clear that Ronald Reagan was helped greatly by the hubris and blunders of Jimmy Carter — a cautionary tale for the Biden White House?
Ask me anything
Question: Are U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks going to face any consequences for their part in “StopTheSteal”? — Via @TxWomenRock on Twitter
Answer: Great question — with the focus last week on QAnon-ish Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and this week on Trump’s impeachment, we’re almost forgetting the GOP Congress members like Gosar of Arizona and Brooks of Alabama who exhorted the January 6 rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol, or who seemed to be involved in the planning. That’s a mistake. There needs to be a full probe of what lawmakers knew and when they knew it. Democrats lack the votes to expel these alleged insurrectionists, but they do hold the ability to censure them — a punishment that history demands.
The great American ideal of “the center” has been made beautiful by poet laureates from Joan Didion to Jimmy Eat World to, cough, cough, Bruce Springsteen. But in politics, the center, or “centrism” as we wonks like to call it, is an ugly place, which maybe explains why the center is never holding. Too many times, we’ve seen the rich and the powerful plead for a middle ground built atop a mountain of bland civility and bipartisan handshakes that maintain a status quo of gross income inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy, and all the things that will sink America if we never rock the boat. You know who gets screwed in “the middle”? The construction worker without much work, on account of the economy. The desperado with debts no honest man can pay. The characters in Springsteen’s epic song catalog.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the 71-year-old New Jersey rocker swung for “the middle,” and it was the worst miss of his long and mostly glorious career. The Boss’ two-minute ode to national unity — brought to you by Jeep — was a deceptively handsome, vaguely lyrical odyssey to a chapel at America’s geographic center in Lebanon, Kansas. It could almost make you forget that the real center of a nation with religious freedom isn’t and shouldn’t be a Christian church, in an almost all-white state run by a Trumpist GOP Taliban — or that there is no middle ground with the folks who were so eager to destroy democracy on January 6. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that his biggest obstacle was “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” I still love you to death, Bruce — but MLK was a real boss.
Inquirer reading list
After my short mid-winter hiatus, I bounced back over the weekend with what passed for my Trump Impeachment II (yes, we’re doing Roman numerals like the Super Bowl) preview. I argued that new revelations about the role played on or around January 6 by Trump lieutenants such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn (both pardoned by POTUS 45 in December) argue for a federal conspiracy case that could bring the justice that’s sure to fall short in the Senate.
On Monday, Philadelphians still hung over on their spicy wing sauce from Super Bowl LV woke up to a political earthquake — the 5 a.m. news that larger-than-life Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is running for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2022, with The Inquirer all over the story. You’d think Philadelphia’s primo newspaper might take a break after the front-line craziness of Pennsylvania’s battleground status in 2020, but the paper also broke the story of Four Seasons Total Landscaping’s appearance in “the Big Game,” as well as a thoughtful profile of Trump-y central Pa. Rep. Scott Perry, who’s hated by many folks but loved by a narrow majority of the voters in his district. If you want to know what happens to Fetterman, Perry, et al., as this new political cycle spins, I’m going to need to ask you to do one thing: subscribe to The Inquirer.