Whitmer's power in crises might be cut.
Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor

Her New York Times op-ed explores why the death of George Floyd and thousands of Black Michiganders are all too similar.

LANSING, MI — Gov. Whitmer called the coronavirus a civil rights issue in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday. 

“Fighting the coronavirus isn’t only a matter of public health. It is a matter of civil rights,” Whitmer wrote. “For a moment, the death of George Floyd has eclipsed the nation’s battle with a lethal virus. But the stories are not at odds. Both reveal an infection we have yet to overcome.”

Whitmer compared the way both police brutality and the pandemic have disparate impacts on vulnerable communities, particularly people of color. Both have left Black bodies piling up. And both rely, heavily, on government responses to combat. 

“The story of Covid-19 is a story about the historical legacy of racism in our country,” she wrote.

“With enough time and money, I am optimistic we will develop a vaccine to inoculate us from one infection. But we must bring the equivalent commitment to the cause of healing the racial divide that continues to blight the United States.”

The novel coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 5,600 Michiganders since it was first diagnosed in the state March 10. And while more than 38,000 of Michigan’s 58,000 cases have been declared recoveries, The ‘Gander reports that Michigan’s definition of recovery is lackluster, leaving the long struggle to getting well again unconsidered. 

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Worse, the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted already marginalized communities. Black Michiganders face disparate outcomes potentially stemming from systemic issues like environmental damage in Black communities and medical bias. Transgender Michiganders likely similarly face harsher outcomes than their peers, but, as The ‘Gander reported, the data on that simply doesn’t exist. 

At the same time, the death of George Floyd, whose neck was knelt on for nearly nine minutes by police, has sparked protests nationwide. Some, like those in Flint, have had positive outcomes. Others, like Kalamazoo protests, saw usage of tear gas, a chemical weapon which is banned for use in war

“I kept my phone close at hand,” Gov. Whitmer wrote. “Protests were sparking across Michigan and the nation. Then a text brought news that I never expected: The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington had just filed a 17-page document asking the federal courts to strip me of my powers to protect the people of my state from Covid-19.”

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Between these two issues, it was the coronavirus that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department weighed in on. In a 17-page document, the division recommended courts strip Gov. Whitmer’s emergency authority to enact protections to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“The shameful irony does not escape me,” wrote Whitmer. “It was the Civil Rights Division that prosecuted the murders of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The same office enforced the Voting Rights Act in the Jim Crow South to end the disenfranchisement of black citizens. And the same office held the Ferguson Police Department to account for fleecing and abusing its black residents.

“Yet the Civil Rights Division was now trying to impede my efforts to fight a virus that has ripped through communities of color. You can see the legacy of racism in our mortality data. In Michigan, African-Americans have suffered 40 percent of all deaths from Covid-19 yet make up only about 14 percent of the population.”

Gov. Whitmer also pointed out that the Civil Rights Division’s advice to strip her power to respond to the pandemic came at the same time that the United States Supreme Court made it clear that the unelected federal judiciary shouldn’t be deciding how to resolve a pandemic. 

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In South Bay United Pentacostal v. Newsom, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the courts’ liberal justices saying the decisions of governors about the pandemic “should not be subject to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.”

But equally unelected and lacking in background, competence and expertise, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department attempted to do just that against Whitmer.

“The chief justice’s opinion showed the Civil Rights Division’s filing for what it was: a brazen attempt to politicize a response to a global pandemic,” wrote Gov. Whitmer.