Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, historian Jelani Cobb (Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism, Columbia University) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about how Covid-19 has stripped the facade of equality and opportunity, making an important argument for labor and essential workers in the United States.

Source: Jelani Cobb

Jonathan Hack (JH): Could you explain why you selected this image and what commentary it offers on the Covid-19 pandemic?

Jelani (William) Cobb (JC): After spending two months at home, traveling at most two or three blocks during that entire time frame, what would normally have been a forgettable errand took on huge significance. I had heard that a lot of the stores, downtown, in Soho, were boarded up, and I wanted to take images of downtown to capture the moment.

I was standing outside the Louis Vuitton store and there was a statement—you cannot see the entire statement on that image, but it reads: “The journey that was paused will eventually start again. Louis Vuitton wishes you and your loved ones health and safety.” This was striking to me. This high-end luxury store is closed, boarded up out of fear of looting (which never did happen, at least during the initial stages of the pandemic), wishing people health and safety. Meanwhile there is a bike messenger, a food carrier, hunched over, headed off to make some delivery, he’s black, and it said a lot to me about how different people were experiencing this pandemic.

I took this photo on May 17, 2020. I didn’t have any particular reason for doing this, but it is significant. May 17 is the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education [Supreme Court] decision—I always remember that day each May. I took this photo, highlighting some of the struggles that we still have to confront today.

Here is a high-end luxury goods store, closing everything down, saying, “We’re going to ride this out,” whereas other people did not have that luxury. When it came down to who kept the city running, it became apparent that it was not those with the most prestige heaped upon them or those with the most resources. In fact, many with means and resources fled, and it was civil servants who kept the city running in the midst of this crisis.

JH: Are there lasting ramifications of this divide between those who could leave and those who, for socioeconomic reasons, had to stay?

JC: I don’t know what the ramifications are. I know that what has happened in the spring of 2020 has had the net effect of clarifying our terms. Although this picture is a little heavy-handed in its portrayal, the reality is the pandemic has been heavy-handed. It stripped away all the euphemisms and the facade of equality and opportunity that allows us to tolerate a situation which is frankly intolerable.

We’ve experienced decades where labor has been disparaged. We’ve seen successive governors and legislators, in different states, campaign on getting rid of public sector unions or believing that civil servants are being paid too much or they have it too easy. Yet these people, these workers, were on the front lines. They were risking their lives to do things that aren’t glorified. When we talk about cops and firefighters, there is at least a veneer of heroism that’s attached to those professions. But no one lionizes the grocery worker. No one lionizes the pharmacist. No one lionizes this guy on his bike.

If we’re going to have a revitalized movement around the treatment of workers in this country, I think Covid-19 and the resulting ripple effect has made the best argument for workers. An argument much better than anyone else could have made.

JH: As grim as this is to say, do you see an upside to the grinding halt that Covid-19 has brought us to?

JC: Potentially. There’s a political saying, “You never waste a crisis and never let a crisis go to waste.” When you have a crisis, it is a chance for significant change in this country. There’s a reason why we talked about the New Deal. The Great Depression made the New Deal possible. In the midst of the Great Depression, sweeping reforms were enacted that changed the way we operated in this country. The same could be said for so many other significant changes we’ve seen in society.

So, yes. It is possible that sweeping changes could come out of our experience under Covid-19.

JH: Are you hopeful for the future? Given the economic standstill and the wave of protests seeking equality, do you see a drive in society, or at least a bulk of society, to mobilize change?

JC: I always pause when I get that question. I pause because when we say “hopeful” in America, we tend to use it in this anodyne, facile, way: “Everything will be OK.” Things are not automatically “OK.”
If you ask me, “Am I hopeful?”, where “hopeful” means that, with enough diligence, enough sacrifice, enough hard work, and enough recalcitrant will, society can move in the right direction, then yes. I am hopeful that it is possible. But by no means do I think that it’s inevitable that these things will happen.

We’re at a point where there’s a particular momentum that we did not have before. Some people have looked at the protests around police brutality as being a distinct phenomenon. As though there were these three things that happened in the spring of 2020: there was a pandemic, there was a recession, and there was this upsurge of protests around police brutality. However, there’s an interrelated, causal relationship between those three things.

The pandemic sheared away that sensibility that people have, an especially American sensibility, that things always go from good to better. The death toll was on a relentlessly upward trajectory, and then the recession deepened people’s anxiety. The pandemic put people in a position to question the system in a way that they might not have otherwise. Had people not had so much time on their hands, were they not so afraid of everything that was going on—and then, in the midst of this, we got a window into the darkness of American policing. From this, all of the stratified hierarchical habits that we have in this country were laid bare, you know. Elderly people, African Americans, low income people, died at triple the rate of white people. All of these realities are much more difficult to avoid now than they were in other times.

This conversation was conducted on June 23, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.