Published 08/11/2020 | Reading Time 2 min 29 sec
By Erika Stone-Burnett, Senior Writer
Jeff Bennett, the Union Public Schools board member who was first elected in 2006, insists he was not being racist when he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” in an email sent to a Union parent. The email, which was addressed only to the father of a Union student, although both parents signed their names in the original message to Mr. Bennett, was sent from his official Union board member address.
“I’m not convinced anyone, certainly not the experts, and defiantly (sic) not me, know much about Covid,” the email started. Mr. Bennett continued, “We shut down schools because it is what we had to do to defeat the deadly Chinese Virus.”
The term Chinese Virus or China Virus is one often banded by President Trump during press conferences, in an effort to deflect responsibility for his administration’s botched pandemic response that has lead to the deaths of 160,000 Americans this year. It is also a nod toward the overt racism and xenophobia that is the hallmark of Trump’s behavior.
Hate crimes against Asian-Americans have increased markedly since the novel Coronavirus arrived in the United States. The New York City Commission on Human Rights — which received 5 complaints of discrimination and harassment toward Asian-Americans in 2019 — noted that they have received 117 such claims already in 2020.
Union School District has over 1,100 Asian-American students, a number which comprises over 7% of the total student population. Throughout the entire district, nearly 75% of Union students are BIPOC. Mr. Bennett is White, as is Superintendent Dr. Kirt Hartzler, and ‘every’ member of the Union School Board.
Only one Union School Board member, President Heather McAdams, mentioned the racial health disparities in COVID infections and illnesses. COVID-19 has ravaged People of Color in Oklahoma, who are disproportionately overrepresented in both positive cases and deaths. Ms. McAdams’ plea to consider the health and safety of Union’s BIPOC student population and their families fell on deaf ears, as the board voted against beginning the school year with distance learning.
During the meeting, Mr. Bennett took multiple opportunities to address the audience, although he took no questions from participants. Insisting his words in the email were a simple mistake, Mr. Bennett explained he was not racist, but only trying to establish a timeline when he described COVID-19 as “the Chinese Virus.”
While scientists are not 100% certain about the origins of the virus, one early hot spot was in a Wuhan market. Meanwhile, after Chinese officials enforced social distancing and mask mandates, China’s COVID cases remained much lower than the United States, despite China’s population being over 1 billion. The United States currently has over 4 million cases of COVID-19 while China had 85,000.
The opportunity to address Mr. Bennett’s hateful behavior did not come til after 10 PM, as the public follow-up to his racist email fell under “new business.” Only two Union parents spoke up, both of whom reminded Mr. Bennett that as a Union School Board member, he is expected to advocate and support all Union students and families. One parent called for an oversight committee.
However well-meaning the suggestion of an oversight committee, Mr. Bennett is in an election position, and used his official Union email address to promote racism, xenophobia, and sexism — as well as push fringe theories about the Kodak company, COVID-19 testing results, and the health risks of people in the 20-to-50-year-old age range. When an elected official who is responsible for the health and well being of all students in the district uses his platform to promote racism, it’s too late for accountability. It’s time to recall Mr. Bennett from Union’s School Board, and vote in an official who supports Students of Color and their families.
Erika Stone-Burnett is a first-year student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, with an academic focus on antiracism, Queer Theory, and community organizing. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, as well as Creative Writing, from the University of Michigan. Erika works at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine as a Simulated Participant, providing innovative social simulation-based training to learners of all disciplines. She is also active with several local organizations, including Racism Stinks, and People Not Politicians. Erika can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org