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Voter suppression and the impact of COVID-19 on people of color

The Rev. William J. Barber has long tackled the issues of race, poverty and hatred. His Poor People’s Campaign in June will hold a digital assembly and march on Washington to draw attention to civil rights issues. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with the reverend about the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color for our on-going initiative "Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Reverend William J. Barber has long tackled the issues of race, poverty and hatred. Next month, his poor people's campaign will hold a digital assembly and march on Washington to draw attention to those and other civil rights issues. I recently spoke with Reverend Barber about the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color for our on-going initiative Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.

    Here is a short excerpt of our longer conversation which will appear on-line on at Chasing the Dream.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Reverend William Barber, thanks so much for joining us.

    When you see those statistics about how disproportionately affected people of color are in this, why do you think that the country is not as shocked as they ought be?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Well, first of all, we're not getting all the statistics. I mean, we get like in Mississippi, 80 percent of the people in one area that died from COVID-19. It might be we're not as shocked because we weren't dealing with it before. And we weren't shocked when a quarter million people were dying from poverty and no income.

    You know, we weren't shocked enough when the Supreme Court rolled back the Voting Rights Act and it's 2013. We've had less voting rights than we've had since 1965. And McConnell, for instance, has blocked fixing the Voting Rights Act for over two thousand days.

    We weren't really shocked as a nation when we knew before COVID, sixty two million people got up and will work every day without a living wage. Four million people could get up every morning and buy unleaded gas and not buy unleaded water. We were spending 53 cents of every discretionary dollar on the military and less than fifteen cents of every discretion dollar on education, infrastructure and health care.

    Our consciousness has and moral consciousness has been so dulled right and we've been locked in this Reaganism, locked in this trickle down, locked in this neo-liberalism. And this and we've been locked in this left right debate. This what the reality of poverty and low income is not about left and right. It's about the very soul at the heart of this of this nation and that we are not upholding even our constitutional morality.

    I'm a preacher. But beyond the preaching part, establishment of justice provided for the common defense, promoting the general welfare issue and domestic tranquility, equal protection under the law. When you look at these glaring statistics, even before COVID, we weren't shocked.

    So after COVID, some people still think it's other, it's over there. I'm concerned even and I say this as an African-American that we are not getting the data on poverty. We're not getting the data on zip code. I believe when we get the full data we're going to see yes it is killing African-Americans at enormous levels, but it's also killing poor white folk in Appalachia at enormous levels and they don't have what they need.

    That's why we have been pulling together this poor people's campaign, a national call for a moral revival over the last three years, because we recognized years ago America needed a moral revival, a moral revolution of values. If we have a conscious awakening, a shaking, a restarting of the very heart of our nation because we are in trouble when it comes to our consciousness. It Is far too dull and we accept it far too much.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You mentioned voter suppression. How concerned are you about it heading into this election, especially now given the health concerns that people have with going to crowded places like polling stations?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    I am concerned about voter suppression.

    I come from a voter suppression state. I know what can happen when when state legislature and governors implement voter suppression law. We are so so one of the things we're saying is register people to vote. We're saying to the congressmen that there are Democrats we need that two billion dollars that they need in the budget to protect our democracy. We are not going to probably get mail in ballots.

    So, we are saying to Democrats and other progressives, and even Republicans if they want the black vote or the white poor vote, but to the progressives, you better have some legislation even if McConnell strikes it down, that lets folks know you're willing to fight for their lives for the poor low because in the fall you're going to ask them to risk their lives to vote.

    Literally, people will have to risk their lives stand in line to vote in the midst of this pandemic. Why did people in Selma risk their lives in 1965? Because they thought what they were risking their life for was worth it. We must give people that kind of policy agenda. If you vote this, if you vote for us, you're going to have health care that's not just connected to your job, but connected to your humanity. If you vote for us, you are going to have a living wage. If you vote for us, you're going to have sick leave and an adequate unemployment. If you vote for us, you're going to have access to clean water. If you vote for us, we're not going to cut your utilities off in the middle of a pandemic.

    You know, we're going to have to give people a life of what I call a a moral budget, a moral agenda that says we care more about life than we do about profits. And then we can people, I believe, will mobilize in mass numbers to vote.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Rev. William Barber, thanks so much for joining us. I hope the next conversation we have is at a time when we can do it face to face.

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Thank you. God bless you. Love to all of you.

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