OPINION: What We Lost in 2020

by Glenn Nelson

This was already going to be an essay about loss during a lost year. As I write it, I am experiencing a profound personal loss, that of my beloved mentor, Father Oneal Joseph McGowan, S.J. I wouldn’t be writing this or any other piece if not for him.

OJ, as our crew knew him at Seattle University (SU), was one of the few Black Jesuits in the U.S.; if memory serves, he was one of only two back in the day. My friend Gordon McHenry Jr., now president and CEO at United Way of King County, and I met the dashiki-wearing priest on our very first day at SU. I spent nearly every day of my college tenure with him after that. OJ had a cherubic, goatee-embellished face that constantly carried an ebullient but bemused smile. He liked to sit in the back with that smile, a nodding head, and pensive posture.

Though he had that spiritual intensity about him, OJ seethed inside with a maelstrom of outrage over racial inequality. I inherited that from him. White people, in particular, disappointed him — at least back then. During 26 years at SU, in his order, and his church, the white tide was considerable, and he constantly was swimming against it.

Now, after the expelled sewage of the year that was 2020, a lot of us know that feeling.

We all can enumerate dozens of individual losses, from loved ones for whom we never got to mourn in person, to trust in institutions like government or media (even science, shudder the thought), to communal experiences like dining, sports, the arts … down to a hug. It all added up to something bigger in 2020: A loss of union, or the ability to unite, that has led to a loss of ability to move forward on inequities steeped in race.

The line I’m drawing from my mentor to where we are today, now without him, is that our losses in 2020 were rooted in the very whiteness that disappointed him so. I’m not talking about the “white devils” of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in his day. It’s not personalized, which is something many white people do not grasp. Rather, it is the white supremacy or systemic racism sewn into the fabric of our country, from its inception: through enslaving Black folks and eradicating or forcibly removing our Indigenous population.

That ingrained whitewashing converged on us in 2020 like a pincer movement by the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus laid bare the societal inequities in healthcare, income, and social standing or privilege. Then Donald J. Trump lanced centuries-old wounds and unloosed nearly half of this country in a movement that felt like the racial rigor mortis of post-apartheid South Africa.

It all made the public demise of Susan Moore the most telling, though tragic and disgusting, summary event of this year of inequity. Moore, a medical doctor and Black, complained in a viral video of her racism-impacted treatment by a white doctor in Indiana. She then succumbed to COVID-19 just weeks later.

Large swaths of this country doubtlessly dispute Dr. Moore’s story, going so low as to refuse acknowledgement of her very existence. That has been the chief contribution from Trump and his enablers: Discredit that with which you don’t agree. It’s not even about truth anymore because as a society we no longer believe in universal truths. Astonishingly large numbers of us peddle what Trump aide Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.” Even the state of this pandemic is under dispute, dangerously so. The maskless assemblers and vaccine rejectors, against their own interests, by their actions — or inactions — perpetuate the health emergency they refuse to accept because it’s inconvenient to their way of life.

This mindset makes it easier for incredulous masses to write off the vastly increased susceptibility of Black and Brown folks like Dr. Moore to COVID-related death as a function of race, instead of inequitable conditions imposed according to race. In this alternate universe, science has been replaced by conspiracy theory. An Emory University study (I love the title: “Looking Under the Tinfoil Hat”) from earlier this year found personalities most receptive to conspiracy beliefs to be the entitled, self-centered, impulsive, cold-hearted (injustice collector), depressed, or anxious (moody, whether confined by age or circumstance). Sound at all familiar?

It’s still a wonder that those so willing to embrace the hair-brained constructs about stolen elections or Democratic child-trafficking rings are mostly the same people unwilling to confront the real conspiracies that have thwarted racial equality in this country. Throughout U.S. history, race-based erasure has been justified by “alternate facts” assigning Indigenous people, the formerly enslaved, and immigrants of color as sub-human. It’s difficult to assert that this has changed much, especially given the stream of police murders of Black folks — a spree that neither started nor culminated with George Floyd. Remarkably, the killers have been unbowed by their public exposure on social media and these acts have been sanctioned by various oversight boards, prosecutors, or grand juries, rendering them the modern-day equivalent of the public lynchings that occurred during Reconstruction.

So there is anxiety among BIPOC communities about survival and erasure. Too many people in this country have been too willing to accept the unacceptable. After all, in addition to attempting to entirely disenfranchise what the funk band Parliament used to call “Chocolate Cities,” you have Trump on his way out the door rushing to pardon his white accomplices on one hand, and executing four Black men and a woman on the other. Justice, as Richard Pryor once pronounced, has been reduced to “just us.” The federal government clearly has not been the bulwark against racism (and “states’ rights”) that it once served — minus, most infamously the FBI — during the civil rights era.

Back as the pandemic was unfolding, I asked some of my BIPOC friends what they feared losing. Elisheba Johnson, co-founder of Wa Na Wari, wrote of an artist friend of color feeling “composted.” Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, fretted over the loss of Native elders leading to a loss of language and culture. Then I had a discussion with Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, which received 2,200 calls for service during the first month of our sheltering in place. Government was helping fill the void, she said, “but not adequately and up to its capability.” She added, “There’s just the unknown of whether the recovery will benefit everyone.”

Even from Seattle’s liberal bubble, gain can be seen as loss. We should, for example, be considered the planet’s capital of income inequality. The Puget Sound is home to three of the 10 wealthiest individuals in the world — Jeff Bezos (1), Bill Gates (4), and Steve Ballmer (10) —  according to Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires List. MacKenzie Scott gives us four of the most affluent 20. With such riches of riches, we shouldn’t have a single pothole in this region, much less homelessness, tax inequities, and rampant gentrification. If there is such a thing as COVID capitalism, we are at the forefront: Per Sen. Bernie Sanders, “Bezos, the wealthiest man alive, became $83 billion richer over the past 9 months while Amazon made record profits. Meanwhile, Amazon workers are risking their lives to fill holiday orders and are denied paid sick leave and hazard pay.”

We are broken. We can’t even agree on what we disagree. Even that which unifies us is not really unifying. Locally, we mirror the internecine division of the Democratic Party, progressives pitted against centrists. I don’t know what is so “radical” or “socialist” about police, housing, and tax reform; I see them as plain necessary. Yet I have white liberal friends railing about the city’s “identity politics,” fomented in their view by council districts, which I see as more directly accommodating the will of the people.

There is much to truly mourn. We lost bright lights in 2020 such as Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, and Breonna Taylor. We lost wisdom-dispensing OGs such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Lewis, and McCoy Tyner. We lost Fr. Oneal McGowan, S.J. But I didn’t expect that we’d lose the means by which we can move forward.

Back in 2016, although it turned out contrary to my most fervent wishes, I actually accepted the results of the presidential election. Not emotionally, of course. But, after a good cry, I acknowledged that our system — somehow, some way — produced Donald J. Trump as this country’s 45th commander in chief.

That was supposed to mean something, that he was everyone’s president and we all, no matter how different, should be able to find common ground.

I am a founding member of the Next 100 Coalition, a national alliance of civil rights, and community and conservation groups of color. As the big, white-led conservation organizations roundly condemned the Trump administration early in its tenure, I convinced my colleagues to withhold public judgment. That silence earned us a meeting with an undersecretary of the Interior — something the other conservation organizations could not land because of their antagonistic stances.

As we strategized for the meeting, I once again urged my colleagues to go bearing a gift — the promise of collaboration. I told them a story: My friend, Elwood York, then the second-highest-ranking Person of Color in the USDA Forest Service, one day was arguing with the National Park Service over use of a fishing pond for non-white kids on the National Mall. An aide to the Interior Secretary happened by, asked about the dispute, and reported to his boss, Ryan Zinke.

Zinke ordered access for the fishing derby, dispatching his aide with the news. The aide actually attended the event and told my friend Elwood that he enjoyed it.

“See,” I told my colleagues, “you just never know.”

The coalition decided we’d open our meeting with a tag-teamed explanation of who we were and what we did. I led off, telling the undersecretary the story about access to the Mall pond.

“That was me,” the Interior official said, adding that we’d all be friends and work together.

As I said, you just never know.

Eventually, the truth emerged as what we’d hoped it wasn’t — that it was all a lie. The truth of the lie was reinforced by 2020’s feverish uncoupling from rationality. During most of the freefall, I felt as if trying to scream during a nightmare. The scream could never be produced, so neither could escape from the unrelenting hell that should have provoked such an alarm.

The death of a mentor, from causes that disproportionately impact people like him, felt like one last kick below the belt from a lost year. As I’ve mourned, I’ve thought about a Black Lit course I took from him. He used to allow his students of color to oratorically pummel our white classmates after slippages due to racial ignorance or privilege. Rather than explain, apologize or rationalize, he’d talk about happiness. It was a state of mind achieved, he said, when we accepted being connected to everything and everyone around us.

As I drown in the opposite of the happiness OJ McGowan espoused, I bemoan not just the loss of him, but also the loss of the connective tissue that inspired his hope for this society.

Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American journalist who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race.

The featured image is attributed to Jameson Fink under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.