The Commons

Readers respond to our June 2020 issue.

Katie Martin

Underlying Conditions

In America, George Packer wrote, the coronavirus has revealed a sick and unequal society incapable of self-government (June).

I shall chew on this article for several days. The taste is bitter. However, it should be swallowed and digested; hopefully its nutrients will be absorbed.

Ian McHugh
Mattapoisett, Mass.

As I read this excellent article, I was struck by the clarity of the writer’s vision.

I was completely unprepared, however, to burst into tears when I read the last paragraph. The phrase “We can use this pause in our normal lives to pay attention to the hospital workers holding up cellphones so their patients can say goodbye to loved ones” conjured up such a strong image, I couldn’t hold back my tears. We are all grieving—for ourselves, for our country, and for one another. The selflessness of so many people should be an inspiration to all of us.

Christine Szolkowski
Howell Township, N.J.

I am a senior administrator at a major public hospital in New York City and have been simultaneously awed by the work of my health-care colleagues and furious at how much has been asked of them because our federal government willfully stopped working like one long ago. It has placed minorities, wage laborers, and “essential workers” at needless risk as the result of replacing core principles of good governance with unrelenting partisan warfare, in all three branches. We’ll dig out and recover from the daily impact of this crisis, but it’s much less certain whether we’ll ever recover the nation’s sense of unity and purpose.

Todd Hixson
New York, N.Y.

The article was powerful, but it did not tell the entire story. There is a saying in the African American community that was captured by Sam Fulwood III in a 2015 article titled “When White Folks Catch a Cold, Black Folks Get Pneumonia.” Those of us in the African American community who are cognizant of our history and have experienced American inequities are not shocked by the ineptness of the health-care system in poor and urban minority communities. However, white America appears to be.

I could not agree more with Mr. Packer when he says, “Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines … clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.” If nothing else, the coronavirus has served as a harsh reminder that while white America is catching a cold, Black America is suffering a potential death threat.

Yolanda Brown-Spidell
Westland, Mich.

Comparing President Donald Trump’s performance to that of France’s Marshal Philippe Pétain in World War II is a bit of a stretch. Perhaps a more apt World War II comparison is the United States’s disgraceful response to the U-boat menace off our Atlantic coast, in the Caribbean, and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942. Despite watching how the British dealt with the U-boats in the Atlantic for the first two years of the war, the U.S. failed to prepare, learn, or implement effective countermeasures. It all sounds so familiar.

John Whittemore
Marion, N.C.

The accurate and devastating picture of today’s United States speaks to a betrayal of the dreams I had when I came as an immigrant to this country in 1971. Fortunately for all, the U.S. has proved to be a most resilient country, able to recover from the worst natural and man-made disasters.

César Chelala
New York, N.Y.

I am a refugee born after the end of World War II and a proud naturalized American citizen. My heart is wounded by every truth revealed in this article—but I thank Mr. Packer for writing it.

Helma Reynolds
Sanibel, Fla.

While it is incredibly sad to see our great southern neighbor sink into irrelevancy, the real disturbing thing for Canadians is that our neighbor may drag our nation into the abyss with it.

Maurice Coombs
Toronto, Ontario

Sadly, almost every word of George Packer’s article is interchangeable with our experience over decades here in the U.K. It is no coincidence that our respective countries have among the highest COVID‑19 death tolls in the world.

Paul Mellon
Glasgow, Scotland

As an Australian, I daily sit in stunned amazement at my American friends, whose leader revels in displaying his ignorance of science and disdain for facts while his fellow citizens die. I love my American friends, but for once I feel desperately sorry for you all.

Paul Jones
St Kilda, Victoria, Australia

Why Birds Do What They Do

The more humans understand about their behavior, Jenny Odell wrote in June, the more inaccessible their world seems.

I deeply appreciated Jenny Odell’s article, and the simultaneous wonder and quiet concern interspersed throughout it. The stay-at-home orders many Americans have found themselves under have allowed them an unusual peek into backyard worlds and dramas that previously they had no idea existed. For me, now that I know this whole universe is humming around me all the time, it’s pretty hard to look away.

Megan Richter
Ridgecrest, Calif.

The Last Day of My Old Life

In the June issue, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about cancer in the time of the coronavirus.

During treatment for cancer, there are lots of images of the patient as a warrior, battling the cancer. I was always lukewarm about that imaging, but it is very prominent. Now I hear the administration using the same language: that we are warriors against COVID‑19. I was unable to avoid getting cancer. I should be able to avoid getting COVID‑19. There should be testing, tracking, tracing, and a rational, coordinated national approach.

Now not only am I in the nightmare of knowing that at some point my cancer will return, but I am also in the nightmare of realizing that my government does not even want me to get to that point. My government is framing the argument that I am old, useless, and, for heaven’s sake, defective because I have metastatic cancer.

Celia Abbott
Banning, Calif.

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In this issue’s opening argument, Jennifer A. Richeson considers why Americans overestimate the country’s progress toward racial equality. Her research found that Americans underestimate the gap between Black and white familial wealth, both past and present. That gap has remained relatively stable for half a century, but Americans tend to assume that it has narrowed over time.

Other research may help explain why such misconceptions persist. Participants in one 2015 study were asked to imagine America as having a population of 100 people, and to estimate how many would see their income rise from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent over 10 years. They guessed that 16 would make that leap; in reality, only one would. Of the respondents, young people and those who self-reported high socioeconomic status were especially off target. As the study’s authors explain it, these two groups are particularly invested in the notion of social mobility—the young rely on it for future success, and elites need it to justify their status as earned. Downplaying inequality, even unconsciously, can help people preserve comforting ideas about themselves—and about their country.

— Jack Segelstein, Assistant Editor

Behind the Cover

A picture is worth a thousand words—but sometimes only a few words are necessary. This month’s unadorned cover poses an urgent national question in stark typographic terms. Ed Yong and Ibram X. Kendi, in their respective essays, elucidate answers by interrogating the uniquely American failures that have allowed the dual crises of COVID-19 and racism to fester. They look squarely, too, at the choices the country now faces if it is to have any hope of recovery. On occasions such as this, a designer’s touch should be light, giving the language space to resonate on its own terms.

— Oliver Munday, Senior Art Director