The Cost of Not Paying Attention: Lessons Hidden in the Pandemics of COVID-19 and Racism

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

On this one occasion, two frogs having fun were leaping together in and out of waterholes. Caught up in their excitement and not paying attention, both ended up leaping into a hole that was so deep they could not leap out. Their persistent efforts to leap out of the deep hole in which they found themselves failed and gave way to them yelling and croaking, hoping that other frogs would hear their cries and come to their aid. Many frogs came, positioned themselves around the deep hole and began initially to cheer them on. Realizing that the hole was just too deep, the frogs encircling the hole yelled to the two trapped frogs to just give up, let it go, and make peace with the perception that the task was just insurmountable. Both the trapped frogs jumped a while longer until one just gave up and died. The second frog, rested for a bit, gathered his strength, felt stronger, then commenced to jumping harder and with more focused intent to accomplish his goal. His persistence paid off as he finally leaped so high that he was able to get out of the hole.

The frogs encircled atop the deep hole were amazed at such a stellar accomplishment and, at the same time, puzzled about how the second frog was able to succeed. They recalled telling the second frog to “just quit, give up, and resign yourself to your destiny to forever be in a deep hole.” The second frog, now extricated from his former circumstance, thanked the group of encircled frogs for their support and for cheering him on. Once again, the encircled frogs were puzzled as they knew that they were not cheering him on. Their leg gestures and chants were inviting him to give up. Just then, the encircled group of frogs realized that the second frog, now free, was deaf so he never heard a word they said. You see, sometimes you have to turn a deaf ear to what others tell you is impossible.

What happened when we turned a deaf ear to what was possible relative to the coronavirus? A spectrum of emotional responses triggered by our lived experiences of COVID-19 continue to surface with exhausting regularity. And, as we entered the ease-of restrictions-phase of this pandemic preparing to get back to some semblance of ‘normal’ life, the CDC and public health agencies were clear in asserting their position that we could minimize resurging spikes of COVID-19 if only we would continue to honor science-based safety protocols during re-entry. Resurgence of positive COVID-19 cases fueled in part by lax compliance or outright dismissal of CDC and public health guidelines is now evident in 20 states. These preventable surges suggest that we did not listen to our health officials encircled around us cheering us on to succeed at reentry by remaining compliant with safety guidelines. In like manner, evidence also suggests that we did not pay attention to the CDC and public health safety protocols relative to congregants gathering in America’s major cities by the thousands to protest yet another killing of an African American male by law enforcement. Oh, and let’s not forget the congregants who assembled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the states and cities actively witnessing a coronavirus resurgence. In short, akin to the frog who gave up, we lost patience with managing the very real restrictions on our lives and decided to no longer work to leap out of the deep hole of chaos and uncertainty. What final costs will be incurred for our continued impatience at paying attention to science and making decisions that will likely bring the gravity of the coronavirus into even sharper focus?

What happens when we turn a deaf ear to what has been promoted as impossible? Four-hundred years of success at maintaining systemic racism and structural inequities remains the catalyst for reopening wounds of African Americans, evident in global reactions to the lynching by knee of George Floyd. African Americans continue to shoulder immeasurable emotional burdens on top of already heavy demands to navigate ever-present social, political, economic, and educational obstacles designed by White America to exclude communities that have never been inferior. Rather, they have been ‘inferiorized,” demonized, and dehumanized.

And, despite generational jeers to quit, give up, chill out, and just accept a destiny of forever being in a deep hole of racism and inequity, African Americans continue to turn a deaf ear to what others say is impossible to overcome. African Americans and other traditionally marginalized communities draw strength to combat racism from knowing that White America is not the landlord of the American dream and that they/we are not on a month-to-month lease. The costs incurred for continuing to combat racism and dismantle systemically structured social, political, economic, and educational exclusionary practices are substantial. The alternative, remaining in a deep hole of oppression and exclusion, is not an option. Recent and projected domestic and global social protests bring credence to this observation.

More actions are needed as is working with White and other allies. Difficult conversations about ism-ideological beliefs and practices based on race, social class, employment, housing, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, ability status and other markers of identity are important and are insufficient in the bigger picture. Concrete, sustainable, and accountability-driven actions are necessary to move the needle of real change.

As summer session comes to an end, so too, do these series of narratives, at least for the time being. Permit me to leave you with a question. There are five (5) birds sitting on a wire and three of them decide to fly away. How many birds remain on the wire? The “obvious” answer is two (2).

The obvious answer, however, is not the correct answer. You see, deciding to fly away is quite different than flying away actually. “Deciding” to act against racism and systemic oppression is quite different than taking concrete and sustained actions. Deciding that you want to get on the other side of COVID-19 is quite different than acting in compliance with CDC and public health guidelines. The illusion that real actions are taking place are found in the actual answer to the riddle. In the end there are five (5) birds remaining on the wire because thinking about flying never put a bird in flight. Until next time.…