It was Thursday, March 12, and I was finishing dinner with my family. I remember distinctly telling my daughter that I didn’t think she'd be going to school for a while.
In the following weeks, many actions were taken to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infection. Schools and nonessential businesses were closed.
Behavior changed in a matter of days. “Wash your hands, stay at home, wear a mask if you absolutely must go out,” became a mantra that I was repeating every day. In city government, we focused our efforts on essential services, a relief fund for businesses and establishing contact tracing to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Before long, a countywide relief fund had been created by the Lancaster County Community Foundation and the United Way of Lancaster County and nearly $1 million had been raised.
In April, the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and the Lancaster Chamber — along with dozens of volunteers from the business community — began to pull together an economic recovery plan. This was followed by a proposal to expand contact tracing and testing countywide. By the middle of May, millions of dollars in federal funds were allocated, and we collectively got to work on the business of recovery.
And then George Floyd was killed on the streets of Minneapolis by a police officer.
His death followed on the heels of other tragic deaths, including those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Suddenly, COVID-19 became overshadowed by a disease that is not novel but is as old as our country: systemic racism.
Lancaster city’s streets, like those across the nation, and even around the world, were filled with demonstrators demanding changes to policing. I was on the ground much of the past two weeks, talking with demonstrators, along with city staff, neighbors, police officers, Lancaster City Council members and even U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. And what I can tell you is that protesters’ demands aren’t just directed at police.
They’re directed at a society and economy that favors or penalizes people based on the color of their skin. More than 400 years after the first African was brought to this land in chains. One hundred and fifty-five years after the abolition of slavery. A hundred and fifty years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing African American men the right to vote. Fifty-six years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
We know that racial inequities underpin the very fabric of our nation and require deliberate commitment and action to dismantle. My job — to build a stronger and more equitable Lancaster, block by block — is impossible when significant parts of our community are left out of our collective well-being and prosperity.
Because of that, the City of Lancaster has set forth a number of commitments to racial equity that can be found front and center on the city’s webpage, in this newspaper and on social media. We are not done; this is just a start.
Nor are we alone. I’ve been heartened by the action steps that are already being taken in our community in job training, hiring, investments, supply chains, youth engagement and more. Long-overdue change is underway.
In the midst of thinking about the next steps regarding our city’s response to the demonstrations and the intensity of these past weeks, I found myself on a call with the various teams who have dedicated themselves to the Lancaster County COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan. I was struck by the solidarity, commitment to action, countywide focus and funding to address the coronavirus pandemic being undertaken by so many.
And it just hit me: Where is this same countywide effort to confront systemic racism in our community? Where is the coordinated commitment to action in every sector of our community — government, health, education, business, philanthropy, faith and nonprofit? Where are the millions of dollars in federal funding? Where is the organizational infrastructure to support this kind of effort?
Perhaps this is a reflection of the insidiousness of racism. People who aren’t discriminated against don’t think that they discriminate. Or perhaps people recognize that racism exists but don’t think it is their problem. Here, I return to a core value that I believe we as Lancastrians share: to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Inherent in this core value of loving your neighbor is a choice. A choice to act. As a community, I believe we have the strength, compassion, resources and conviction to tackle the pandemic of racism, too.
Let’s get to it with the fierce urgency of now, just like we did with COVID-19.
Danene Sorace, a Democrat, has been mayor of the City of Lancaster since January 2018.