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Racial justice in a post-COVID America: toward systemic conflict resolution and peacebuilding

Arthur Romano

There is overwhelming evidence that the COVID-19 epidemic struck African Americans, Latinxs, and other minorities in the U.S. far more severely than most white communities. Even Black citizens by police officers or former officers generated the largest demonstrations for racial justice since the heyday of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. What is the likely future of this movement, and what will be its next stages of development? Will an uneven recovery from the medical and economic crises further exacerbate racial and ethnic struggles? This essay analyzes the causes of the wave of social unrest now agitating American society and discusses actions that conflict resolvers may take in the nonviolent pursuit of peace and justice.

In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately killed and sickened racial minorities, especially African Americans. In Chicago, to give just one example, black individuals comprise more than 50% of CO VID-19 cases and nearly 70% of CO VID-19 deaths, although Blacks make up only 30% of the city’s population. Moreover, these deaths are concentrated mostly in just five neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side (Yancy 2020).1

This dramatic racial disparity in COVID-19 outcomes shines a harsh spotlight on systemic racism and injustice in the United States. African Americans are more vulnerable to COVID-19 for a variety of reasons: They are more likely to live in areas segregated by race and poverty that have denser housing, intergenerational households, high crime rates, and poor access to healthy foods and basic health care. Blacks disproportionately struggle with comorbidities such as hypertension and obesity, which are all but inscriptions of the accumulated trauma of racism on their bodies (Guan et al. 2020).2 Blacks are less likely to be able to telework (30% of Americans but fewer than 20% of Black and Latino workers) reported that they could do so before the pandemic (Gould and Shierholz 2020).3 Many Black and Latino people hold low-wage, “essential” jobs that afford them almost no flexibility to work from the relative safety of home. They are running transportation systems, picking up garbage, ringing up groceries, working in high-risk healthcare settings such as nursing homes, and taking care of children.

Black people have long recognized and lived with these kinds of inequalities in housing, employment, health, and health care, but COVID-19 has made them visible for all to see. The pandemic had already revealed systemic racism when the tragic murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Milwaukee on May 25, 2020, unleashed public rage and anger against it. Large numbers of anti-racist protestors and sympathizers demanded a move away from incremental change and toward serious overhauls of a racially biased systems (most notably, policing). The size, spread, and frequency of these demonstrations took virtually all analysts by surprise, as did the appearance of a new generation of organizers and activists devoted to change. I believe that people will continue to take to the streets, join militant groups, inundate social media, and engage with increasing zeal in cultural change work and local experiments as social inequalities and the permanent underclass both grow.

For those interested in doing work related to conflicts of race in the United States, this situation poses dramatic new challenges. I want to argue here that the most immediate challenge for peacemakers is to join forces with racial justice movements and work to transform structural injustices, rather than focusing on conventional methods of “resolving” and "de-escalating” existing unrest. Many of the professional processes we imagine and promote are dialogue-based and take place within controlled settings with an underlying ethic of middle-class civility and a Habermasian aesthetic of how democratic social change occurs (Chilton and Wyant Cuzzo 2005).4 In practice, however, people imagine and enact a democratic society in the messy and tenuous moments of wider unrest and civil resistance, as well as through everyday acts of resistance to injustice and local work aimed at constructing alternatives structures for meeting human needs (A. Y. Davis 2016; Escobar 2008; Lilja et al. 2017).5 Productive conflict escalation is often an opportunity to promote deeper social change.

The debate between system maintenance and revolutionary work is certainly not a new one for our field; practitioners and scholars have been discussing these tensions for decades (Schoeny and Warfield 2000).6 This moment, however, invites conflict practitioners to engage more extensively with questions of structural, systemically generated violence. For example, what would a just economic order in the United States and the world look like given the deeply entwined racist legacy of colonialism, slavery, and anti-immigrant movements that shaped American capitalism? How can democracy ensure the rights and well-being of all people, especially

Racial justice in a post-COVID America 83 black people and other marginalized groups, when our political system was grounded in racial inequality from the start? More Americans are realizing that racism is not an issue solely of individual attitudes and good or bad intentions, but the result of intersecting systems that require change (Collins and Bilge 2020, Crenshaw 2017).’ In June 2020, for example, over two million people participated in a Zoom call hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign to learn more about how they could help address the intersecting issues of racism, poverty, and militarism.

This wider analytical awakening, while vital, does not automatically produce change, since powerful systems are often able to weather shortterm unrest and reorganize themselves with superficial changes that leave broader patterns of oppression intact. Again, this suggests a creative role for peacebuilders and conflict resolution practitioners able to connect different activist networks. This engagement with advocates working across diverse domains, from rethinking criminal justice to transforming the economy and reimagining education, is challenging, since these individuals often have competing theories of change, employ diverse practices, and engage in varied organizational and professional cultures. A nonlinear and networked approach is needed when instigating systemic change, since shifts in understanding and new pathways for collaboration can influence change across multiple systems in ways that are hard to predict (Chesters 2004).8 Meanwhile, social movements provide a large wave, or "outside” force, that exerts pressure on institutions, transforming what people think is possible in terms of justice in the society.

What does this kind of conflict resolution work - to advance systemic rather than piecemeal change - look like in practice? In part, it entails finding and supporting those activists who are already building bridges in their work. We can see the power of this kind of cross-pollination in the rich history of black women organizers from Harriet Tubman to Ella Baker (Gumbs 2014; Parker 2020).9 It also exists with contemporary activist and peacebuilders such as the Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson, Missouri, who comiected with and formed alliances with other activists around the world, including Palestinians (Bailey 2015).10 These leaders amplified their influence and incorporated greater complexity in their thinking by meeting policymakers and public intellectuals in the United States and abroad, including elder civil rights activists, professional athletes, and other public figures (Jackson and Foucault Welles 2016).11 Over time, this approach mattered; during the uprisings following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it helped shift the national conversation toward systemic solutions (e.g., how the system of policing works, and how police departments might be radically overhauled, decommissioned, defunded, or otherwise transformed).

Conflict resolution in and across networks requires specialized skills, including mapping and better understanding how knowledge circulates between and within varied political and social ecologies. Facilitating conversations about collaboration, ongoing conflicts, key impasses and differences in vision, entails moving beyond familiar constituencies and communities of practice and engaging with groups working in different or loosely connected domains. This ability to engage with greater complexity and build a broader and more diverse power base is a form of integrative power which is at the heart of networked conflict resolution (Boulding 1990).12 Some of the work involves both horizontal and vertical exchange, or as Civil Rights Activist and pedagogue Dr. Bernard LaFayette puts it, “connecting the streets to the suites.”

An important implication of this shift of focus for peace and conflict specialists is the need to develop our theories of change and learn more from practitioners about how systemic change actually occurs. This approach demands engaging with complexity on two major fronts: (a) understanding how to integrate change efforts across institutions and at different social levels; and (b) embracing and working with nonlinear and emergent dynamics in complex systems. Conflict scholar John Paul Lederach, for example, offers an alternative to focusing on “critical mass” by proposing the metaphor of “critical yeast” (Lederach 2005).13 This phrase describes how a small number of influential actors can generate change like yeast making bread rise. Lederach’s point is that types of connections are important, and not just the quantity (“critical mass”) of people engaged. Even small changes across multiple networks can lead to tipping points, as systems are often interconnected and not as stable as we think. Mapping those systems, looking for new points of connection, and bolstering or creating new pathways and processes for exchange is key to work that seeks to catalyze the unpredictable.

Facilitating democratic engagement is a critical form of conflict resolution in order to engage growing numbers of people in influencing wider systemic change. For example, when it comes to uprooting police violence, policy change is critical to demilitarizing the police, creating a national database of police who have engaged in conduct violations, and limiting the power of police unions or dissolving them altogether. Furthermore, as many commentators have pointed out, major shifts in funding are needed to support community-based conflict resolution and stronger social services in areas affected by structural violence (Jenkins 2020).14 But even this is not enough. We need economic policies that break down economic stratification and spatial segregation so that race, class, and one's ZIP code are no longer the largest determinants of one's access to quality jobs, health care, education, or protection from violence (including police violence).

Yet for peacebuilding to be effective over the long-term in addressing systemic racism actions have to emerge, as well, out of the knowledge and needs of local people and the leadership of Black people and other people of color. Solutions offered by experts and advanced by federal policies, however effective, are not enough. Although people frequently call for community engagement or culturally relevant perspectives, in reality violence prevention and urban education often rely heavily on expert-driven approaches (Ginwright 2010).15 People of color living in America’s most violence-affected cities are too often portrayed either as passive victims or irredeemable perpetrators of violence. This story neglects how people who live with these problems each day produce and share knowledge in their communities about the underlying causes of violence and how they might be addressed.

I believe that cities and the surrounding suburbs will present some of the best opportunities for systemic peacebuilding models with local and national implications. For conflict resolution practitioners committed to working within and between differing networks, the city provides the requisite complexity to help facilitate learning and advance broader collective action that can help connect these highly localized experiments with practices that build alternatives to systemic racism. For example, in urban communities, today peacebuilders engage in local truthtelling and restorative justice efforts and have created supportive spaces to work together to address police violence locally, and to join others nationally in the prevention of police violence (Romano and Ragland 2018).16 Meanwhile, in schools, restorative justice has reduced suspensions and expulsions, kept people who would have gone to jail out of jail, and reduced recidivism (Brown 2019; Gonzalez 2015; F. E. Davis, Lyubansky, and Schiff 2015).17 Further activists have worked on developing Harm Free Zones similar to Zones of Peace, where conflict de-escalation practices, peace education, and restorative justice are used to create the conditions where community members can play a more active role in working for justice and rely less on police intervention (Herzing 2015).18

A systems approach to peacebuilding means supporting these movements, creating horizontal linkages between them, and building a diverse power base so that these grassroots efforts can be sustained and go to scale. In terms of integration, urban peacebuilding will increasingly facilitate hybrid forms of urban governance that connect grassroots and social movements with existing governance structures. For example, technological solutions like the app developed by Brandon Anderson Raheem helps communities report and track police behavior so that they can influence policy by directly through crowdsourcing efforts about police abuse of power (Gray 2020).19 In Minneapolis, the city council is engaging community members to re-envision community safety, care, and support efforts as an alternative to militarized policing of communities of color (Solomon Gustavo 2O2O).20 And in places like New Haven, Connecticut, activists and advocates are leading conflict de-escalation training for the police department in which they train police alongside community members in the philosophy and practice of nonviolence and critical reflection on systemic racism (Romano 2014).21

This is a painful and important moment in the United States as the convergence of COVID-19, with its devastating effect on Black people and other people of color, and protests spurred by Floyd’s death have raised awareness of systemic racism and remarkable momentum to uproot it. Realities long understood and endured in Black communities have now been inescapably revealed to the rest of the country. For those interested in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and racial justice, the post-COVID context presents an opportunity and a challenge. Conflict resolution can engage more with activists and social movements, think more deeply about how systems change takes place, and become more explicit about political values, positionality, and vision for a world without systemic racism. Urban communities are the ideal places to develop and sustain hybrid governance comprised of grassroots activists and those working within existing institutions. Our field is in the midst of a shift toward conflict resolution that engages more actively with conflict escalation and an approach to peacebuilding that is systemic in not only its analysis but its practices.


  • 1 Clyde W. Yancy, “COVID-19 and African Americans,” JAMA 323, no. 19 (2020): 1891-92,
  • 2 Wei-jie Guan. Wen-hua Liang. Yi Zhao, Heng-rui Liang, Zi-sheng Chen, Yi-min Li, Xiao-qing Liu et al, “Comorbidity and Its Impact on 1590 Patients with COVID-19 in China: A Nationwide Analysis,” The European Respiratory’ Journal 55, no. 5 (2020), doi:10.1183/13993003.00547-2020.
  • 3 E. Gould and H. Shierholz, “Not Everybody Can WorkfromHome: Black and Hispanic Workers Are Much Less Likely to Be Able to Telework,” Economic Policy Institute, 2020, accessed April 16,2020, https:,7Www. Epi. Org Blog Black-and-Hispanic-Workers-Are-Much-Less-Likely-to-Be-Able-Towork-from-Home/.
  • 4 Stephen Chilton and Maria Stalzer Wyant Cuzzo. “Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action as a Theoretical Framework for Mediation Practice,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 22, uo. 3 (2005): 325-48.
  • 5 Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Escobar, Arturo. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Angela Y. Davis. Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); Mona Lilja, Mikael Baaz, Michael Schulz, and Stellan Vinthagen, “How Resistance Encourages Resistance:

Theorizing the Nexus Between Power, ‘Organised Resistance’ and ‘Everyday Resistance’,” Journal of Political Power 10, no. 1 (2017): 40-54.

Mara Schoeny and Wallace Warfield, “Reconnecting Systems Maintenance with Social Justice: A Critical Role for Conflict Resolution,” Negotiation Journal 16, no. 3 (2000): 253-68, doi:10.1111/j.l571-9979.2000.tb00217.x.

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality (Chicester: Jolui Wiley & Sons. 2020); Kimberle W. Crenshaw, On Intersectionality-: Essential Writings (New York: The New Press, 2017).

Graeme Chesters, “Global Complexity and Global Civil Society,” Voluntas: International Journal ofVoluntarv and Nonprofit Organizations 15, no. 4 (2004): 323-42.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Prophecy in the Present Tense: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee Pilgrimage, and Dreams Coming True,” Meridians 12, no. 2 (2014): 142-52, doi:10.2979/meridians. 12.2.142; Patricia S. Parker, Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2020).

Kristian Davis Bailey, “Black - Palestinian Solidarity in the Ferguson - Gaza Era,” American Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2015): 1017-26.

Sarah J. Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles, “# Ferguson Is Everywhere: Initiators in Emerging Counterpublic Networks,” Information, Communication & Society 19, no. 3 (2016): 397-418.

К. E. Boulding, Three Faces of Power (Newbury Park: Sage, 1990).

Lederach, The Moral Imagination.

Destin Jenkins, “What Does It Really Mean to Invest In Black Conununities?,” June 29, 2020,

Shawn Ginwright, “Building a Pipeline for Justice: Understanding Youth Organizing and the Leadership Pipeline,” Occasional Paper 10, Occasional Paper Series on Youth Organizing. Funders’ 2010 Collaborative on Youth Organizing.

Arthur Romano and David Ragland. "Truth-Telling from the Margins: Exploring Black-Led Responses to Police Violence and Systemic Humiliation,” in Sys-temic Humiliation in America: Finding Dignity- within Systems of Degradation, ed. Daniel Rothbart. 145-72 (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-70679-5_7.

Adrienne Brown, “Suspensions and Referrals to Law Enforcement of African American Students Pre and Post Restorative Justice,” Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2019,; Fania E. Davis, Mikhail Lyubansky, and Mara Schiff, "Restoring Racial Justice,” Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2015): 1-16, https://doi. org'10.1002/9781118900772.etrdsO288; Thalia Gonzalez, “Addressing Racial Disparities in Discipline through Restorative Justice,” in Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion, ed. Daniel J. Losen (New York: Teachers College Press, 2015), 22.

Rachel Herzing, “Big Dreams and Bold Steps Toward a Police-Free Future,” Truthout, 2015.

Christopher Gray. "Brandon Anderson’s RAHEEM Has Leveraged Technology and Data to Help Thousands of Black People Report Police Misconduct,” Forbes, June 10, 2020,' brandon-andersons-raheem-has-leveraged-technology-and-data-to-help-thou-sands-of-black-people-report-police-misconduct/.

  • 20 Solomon Gustavo, “What We Know (and Don’t Know) so Far about the Effort to Dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department,” MinnPost, July 9, 2020, www.
  • 21 Arthur Romano,“Police Should Put Away the Military Gear and Build Connections with Young People,” The Conversation, 2014, accessed July 14, 2020,

10 The gendered frontlines

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