Campus News

Dual pandemics of COVID-19, racism discussed at R3 symposium

In the sixth installment of “Race, Racism and Racial Equity,” three research teams showed how the health crisis highlighted racial inequities.

The Race, Racism and Racial Equity (R3) Symposium is a series of virtual events that bring together scholars and researchers from across campus to share their work with Carolina and the broader community. Top from left: Travis Albritton (moderator), Caitlin R. Williams, Rachel Goode; middle: Hanna Huffstetler, Meghan Greene, Maya Bracy; bottom: Sarah Boland.
The Race, Racism and Racial Equity (R3) Symposium is a series of virtual events that bring together scholars and researchers from across campus to share their work with Carolina and the broader community. Top from left: Travis Albritton (moderator), Caitlin R. Williams, Rachel Goode; middle: Hanna Huffstetler, Meghan Greene, Maya Bracy; bottom: Sarah Boland. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The impacts of unconscious bias and the lived experiences of Black women and families are among the areas that Carolina research teams are examining in the pandemic era.

Three research teams, representing the School of Education, the School of Social Work and the Gillings School of Global Public Health, presented their work at Race, Racism and Racial Equity (R3) Symposium: Scholarship Addressing the Dual Pandemic of Racism and COVID-19, over Zoom on April 19. Travis Albritton, clinical associate professor and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Social Work, moderated the discussion.

It was the sixth event in R3, the symposium series begun in 2020. Initially meant to be an annual, stand-alone event, R3 continued because “the collective thirst for information, discussion and examination of race, racism and racial equity has been so powerful,” according to the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, its main sponsor.

“It feels especially important during this time as we continue to understand and identify how race, racism — systemic and structural racism — affect our health and the experiences of members of the community during a pandemic,” said Leah Cox, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, who opened the event. “I’m encouraged to know that my colleagues here at UNC are doing this critical work and helping all of us to understand how we address injustices that affect our entire community.”

Gillings School of Global Public Health

Sarah Boland, Caitlin Williams and Hanna Huffstetler — all doctoral candidates — presented a paper that pointed out irony in the way two vaccine clinics in Massachusetts were set up during the pandemic and the insidious ways that racism affected those decisions. The first clinic, at Worcester State University, operated much like the clinic at the Friday Center here at Carolina, Williams said — inviting people to make appointments for their vaccine shots. “Very quickly … they were able to hit state records in terms of the number of people who were being vaccinated,” Williams said. “But we realized that most of the people being served by this clinic were white, upper-middle-class residents of Worcester, because this clinic was put in a place that was only accessible by car, and you needed to be able to go online to set an appointment.”

A second clinic set up at the Worcester YMCA was specifically designated as a health equity clinic. It accepted patients first-come, first-served instead of by appointment. Demand ended up being overwhelming, and it was understaffed compared to the Worcester State site, so people ended up having to queue outside before dawn, in order to get slots when the clinic opened.

“Even though no one intended to create de facto separate and unequal services, these deeply rooted unconscious beliefs contributed to a design that reinscribed inequity,” Williams said. These beliefs include whose time is considered valuable; who is served by a first-come, first-served policy versus appointments; and for whom it is more important to be able to come in and get their shot quickly versus who’s assumed to be able to wait for hours.

School of Social Work

Rachel Goode, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work, presented her research about the lived experiences of Black women who were essential workers during 2020. She conducted the research along with colleagues Trenette Clark Goings, the Sandra Reeves Spear and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor of Social Work, and Mimi Chapman, Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information.

Roles considered essential during the pandemic were often performed by Black women, Goode said, noting that Black women make up 30% of health care workers and 20% of food and agriculture workers. These women also had to raise children, keep themselves safe and witness police brutality that year. “Can we examine meaning and understand what it has been like for them to balance this intersectional identity and some of their professional obligations?” Goode asked.

Four themes emerged during “semi-structured interviews” conducted between August and December 2020 with Black women in North Carolina, Goode said: both a desire to and a fear of protest; navigating an emotional outpouring; a mixed level of understanding from colleagues; and a rise in blatantly racist confrontations in the workplace.

“This study demonstrates the complexity of having to work in positions where people often did not feel valued enough and also dealing with concurrent national and local discussions on racism,” Goode said. “It causes us to think critically about how we’re doing supporting these workers, and what we need to do on a federal level to ensure the best support of essential workers and to provide them with adequate care and resources. As we all see, continued work is needed to create a just and equitable society.”

School of Education

Maya Bracy and Meghan Greene, both doctoral students at the School of Education, presented work in progress about supporting the educational and mental well-being of Black families during and after COVID-19. Prompted by news reports in 2020 about the disproportionately negative impact that the pandemic had on Black families, the team began a study “to centralize Black voices and perspectives regarding the educational and mental health of Black families during the pandemic, to learn about how parents were involved with their children during this time and to develop culturally grounded interventions that schools can use to support Black students, now that we have returned to in-person learning,” Greene said.

The team interviewed families with at least one child in kindergarten through 12th grade in a mid-size North Carolina city in which 39% of residents identify as Black. They conducted individual interviews and focus groups and presented a preliminary data set with three themes: community, racial bias and parental involvement.

“Black parents are noting the lack of community and connection they felt prior to the pandemic,” Greene said. “However, in order to continue to support their children and deal with the new stress that they were experiencing as a result of the pandemic, they built networks of support that are now continuing to help them thrive today.”