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Are Americans Eager To Go Back To Normal Amid The Pandemic And Protests?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new issue of The Atlantic, two stories share the cover exploring the two struggles that the U.S. is in the middle of right now. One piece by Ed Yong is called How the Pandemic Defeated America. The other, by Ibram Kendi, is called The End of Denial, and it's about Americans confronting the country's racist past and present. These two pieces about the pandemic and racism share a central question - are Americans too eager to return to normal?

Ed Yong and Ibram Kendi, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ED YONG: Hey. Thanks for having us.

IBRAM KENDI: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start, what do you think these two struggles that we're in right now have in common?

YONG: I think that underlying both of these pieces is this idea that America is riddled with systemic problems that have really come to light in a very dramatic way this year. With the pandemic, for example, much of what has happened with the pandemic and America's way (ph) to control it certainly is due to short-term problems like the failure of leadership from the Trump administration, but the virus has also torn apart so many existing vulnerabilities - weaknesses in our health care system, our chronic underfunding of public health. And many of the racial inequalities that Ibram so beautifully described have all been found, exploited and worsened by the pandemic.

So while yes, so many people are thinking about going back to normal and wondering how that could happen, we have to understand that normal led to this, that normal created a situation where the world was ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for it. And so we have to craft something better, and that begins with understanding the full extent of all the systemic problems that have led to this moment.

SHAPIRO: Ibram?

KENDI: And I think Americans have been asking all summer long, how did we get to the point when so many Americans are infected with COVID-19, so many Americans have died of COVID-19 and so many Americans are demonstrating against police violence or racism? And I think our stories together really answer those questions, but just don't answer the questions, really try to press forward. That allows us to never have to reach this point again because, you know, there's not a place we should be, and it's not a place we had to be, you know, if we would have made different choices.

SHAPIRO: You've each read each other's pieces, and I think taking them together really underscores the amount of overlap between these two issues of the pandemic and systemic racism. Is there a detail that each of you could identify in the other story that you think helps inform the article you yourself wrote?

KENDI: Oh, well, for me, I write about the way in which Donald Trump - and not only his support of racist policy and not only his expressions of racist ideas, but even his consistent denial that those policies and ideas are racist held up a mirror to American society in which they saw themselves. They saw themselves sort of trafficking in racist ideas and policies and then consistently saying I'm not racist. And Americans didn't like what they saw.

Through reading Ed's piece, it seems to me that in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic held up a mirror to America, and Americans did not like what they saw. And Americans are coming to grips with the way in which we under, sort of, resource our public health system, the way in which we have allowed for a health care system that's based in greed. You know, that mirror, I think, is being held up, you know, in two sides, both by this current administration and even the coronavirus pandemic.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. Ed?

YONG: I think one of the bits in Ibram's piece that really resonated with me was his personal story. There's a point when Ibram talks about a cancer diagnosis. And he writes beautifully, I had two choices - denial and death or recognition and might (ph). American now has two choices. And I think there's something beautiful there about the need to confront brutal reality whether you are an individual or whether you are a society. And I think that his story reveals that these issues of health and of race cannot be differentiated, you know, cannot be separated.

SHAPIRO: You both point to President Trump as a source of harm but also as somebody who helped America see the deep-seated problems in this country. And so what impact do you think the outcome of the election is going to have on this question of whether the U.S. confronts these deep-seated problems after the immediate crisis has subsided?

KENDI: Well, for me, it really depends on whether people view Donald Trump as the personification of racism such that if he, let's say, loses the election and departs the White House, racism is departing America, or whether they see him as a racist, as someone who has instituted racist policies and expressed racist ideas and that there are others within our policymaking bodies, within our institutions, and there are policies that we need to get rid of, too, not just one person. And so if they believe that it's essentially one person, when that one person leaves, they'll imagine America yet again as post-racial, and they will then imagine that there is no more work to be done. And then this racial pandemic, that is, the disparities, will only continue. And Americans won't even know that it's still harming so many people.

SHAPIRO: Ed?

YONG: I think Ibram is completely right. Racism wasn't founded in America in November 2016, and it's not going to go away in November 2020 if Biden wins. Same with many of the problems that the pandemic exposed and exploited. Yes, Trump's lack of leadership and all his numerous personal failings were huge, central problems in this pandemic, but they were not the only ones that mattered. And part of the point of my piece is to say that there were a lot of pre-existing problems. If we go back to a place where hospitals are still overstretched, where public health is still underfunded, where inequities are still unaddressed and social media is still completely unregulated and allowed to provide misinformation at a greater pace than information, we'll still be weak. We will still be vulnerable to the next pandemic.

And so the November 2020 election is absolutely (unintelligible). But given that Biden ran - is sort of running on a campaign of, like, going back to the good old days, he needs to be confronted throughout this campaigning process - and should he win, throughout his presidency - about remaking those good old days because those good old days led to where we are now. We really do need to think about and push for a much better, a more resilient and more equitable world.

SHAPIRO: Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and Ibram Kendi is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a professor and director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Their pieces are in the September issue of the magazine, and thank you both so much for talking with us about them.

KENDI: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for having us.

YONG: Yeah, thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLPOOL SONG, "IDEAL WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.