In June 2019, Dr. Karen Smith, California’s top public health official, exited her position, leaving Dr. Charity Dean to fill the role in the interim.
Dean had been chief health officer for Santa Barbara before her unusual tenacity and care for a job nobody noticed garnered the attention of a few bigwigs. By the time Smith departed, Dean had risen to become the state’s second-highest public health official and was positioned to be her boss’ natural replacement.
If California Governor Gavin Newsom had appointed Dean — whom author Michael Lewis, in his new book The Premonition, described as “clairvoyant” for her ability to anticipate the pandemic before it happened — the state might have been in a better position to serve as a national model for pandemic management. After all, seeing the organizational flaws her colleagues couldn’t was Dean’s unique gift.
“In any large organization, the solution to any crisis was usually found not in the officially important people at the top but in some obscure employee far down the organization’s chart,” Lewis wrote, referencing others who had noticed that Dean fit the trait of an “L6.”
“The L6,” Lewis explained, is “the person buried under six layers of organization whose muzzled voice suddenly, urgently needed to be heard.”
For years, Dean worked competently in the shadows, doing what most people in her position would avoid. That’s why she was dispatched to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’d heard that Trump was trying to create a crisis,” Dean told Lewis, “trying to turn people against immigrants. It was just a rumor. But when I get there I find this is all true. They’re just dumping families on street corners at two in the morning. They were trying to create a disaster.”
Dean’s task was to “mitigate the health risks posed by the new arrivals,” and for that she had to get up close and personal with the people affected by Trump’s policies. In Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, there was a shelter, where Dean “found hundreds of tired, scared, and obviously unhealthy refugees.”
She found terrified mothers and babies, who had been kept in cages, and shell-shocked toddlers. She treated them with medical supplies obtained from the home medicine cabinets of church volunteers. Dean learned that San Diego County and the Red Cross didn’t want anything to do with the migrants (the latter because the nonprofit “didn’t want to offend their Republican donors,” Lewis writes).
Dean risked her own health to offer medical treatment to these new arrivals, jerry-rigging the response into an unmitigated success.
But even after all of this, the state’s number two health officer got overlooked. Instead of appointing Dean to succeed Smith as top health official, Newsom appointed Dr. Sonia Angell, a former employee with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who had experience “in neither California nor communicable disease.”
Angell’s most recent job before her appointment had been working on heart disease in New York City’s health department, Lewis writes. Later, after Angell abruptly resigned amid the pandemic, Newsom explained that he had appointed her, in part, because of “her work in righting racial injustice in health care.”
Dean was later told “that she herself had never been a serious candidate” because it would have been bad for “optics.”
“Charity was too young, too blond, too Barbie,” Lewis writes, quoting a senior official in California’s health system. “‘They wanted a person of color.’ Sonia Angell identified as Latina.”
For someone hired, in part, because of equity, Angell’s reported workplace treatment of Dean was rather appalling.
“The first thing Karen Smith had asked Charity to do was to resolve a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border,” Lewis writes. “The first thing Sonia Angell asked her to do was to figure out how to set the time on the clock on her desk phone.”
Dean also “found her new boss a tailor, a hairdresser, and a dry cleaner,” and worked to “dismiss the thought that her new boss was asking her to do these things to remind her of her place.”
An expert in infectious disease who would sit in front of a whiteboard in her office “coming to terms with exponential growth,” Dean may have literally been the only person in California government who knew what even the CDC refused to recognize until months into the COVID-19 pandemic: the fact that we were in a pandemic.
But Dean was labeled an alarmist when she attempted to broach the topic with her new boss. Eventually, Angell banned Dean from using the word “pandemic” in meetings and told her to “erase the math and the tsunami curve on her whiteboard” before banishing Dean from important planning discussions altogether.
When California officials realized the crisis they were dealing with, it was too late. Many thousands had already died, with many more deaths to come.
Angell would eventually resign during the pandemic due to what state officials reported to be a “tech glitch that resulted in an undercount of coronavirus cases and confusion about the scope of infections as the state’s death toll crossed 10,000,” according to a statement officials released at the time.
Ironically, in a parting email to staff, Angell wrote: “We have led with science and data, and with equity at the core of our intentions.”
The situation with Angell is a case study in what I’ll call the equity industrial complex, which is less interested in erasing the foundational basis for systemic inequities than in treating the symptoms — or to switch metaphors, applying mascara to conceal much deeper problems.
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Talmon Joseph Smith put his finger on the equity (or anti-racism) industrial complex when opining on why the globe-spanning racial justice movement that sprung up since the death of George Floyd last year has yielded such tepid systemic results.
“Talk of social justice efforts and antiracism reached new levels of influence in the Zoom-layered corridors of the intelligentsia, corporate America, and other upper-middle-class or elite-controlled institutions,” Smith writes. “Yet this reckoning often didn’t have ambitions for systemic change as much as it concerned itself with matters like representation, diversity, promotion and renegotiating the terms of corporate social responsibility.”
In other words, the movement inspired by a poor Black man in Minnesota has much to show for itself in the way of book deals, six-figure salaries, speaking engagements and consultant fees (an environment ripe for exploitation by ‘woke’ artists), but much, much less in the way of, say, protection against systemically racist policing for Black and Brown people like Floyd.
“Protest leaders didn’t march last summer to widen the trend of Black Lives Matter signs in tree-lined progressive neighborhoods, where Black neighbors are often conspicuously absent because of classist zoning laws,” Smith adds. “While many cultural shifts have been welcome, it’s not clear that people were protesting for things like greater demographic variety in the ads, magazine covers or entertainment that we consume.”
Quiet as it’s kept, in Oak Park and River Forest, there are a lot of Sonia Angells — high-achieving professionals who preach and “perform” equity in public, but who in their professional lives are working to uphold not only systems and practices of oppression, but also the worst aspects of modern institutions, including their tendency toward blind arrogance and rigid, often counterproductive, hierarchies.
In his 2020 book Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, Toure Reed writes that, since “the Cold War, liberals have tended to “abstract racial disparities from the political-economic forces that generate them,” tracing those disparities “to whites’ ingrained prejudices and poor blacks’ cultural deficiencies.”
According to this framework, embodied in the likes of Obama and Oprah, the antidotes to racial injustice are opportunity, education and personal responsibility. But as the case of Angell shows, simply installing Black and Brown faces in high places does not translate into institutional reform.
Frameworks of equity based on racial representation, diversity, “the culture of poverty” and ethnic pluralism touted by “postwar liberal policymakers” like the Clintons and Obama may result in historically diverse presidential cabinets and much breaking of the ubiquitous glass ceiling, but they often ignore much deeper root problems.
“Liberals’ tendency to divorce race from class has had dire consequences for African American and other low-skilled workers,” Reed argues, I believe correctly. These policy-makers “have generally ignored the impact of issues such as automation, deindustrialization, public-sector retrenchment and the decline of the union movement on Blacks.
“Instead, modern liberal antipoverty efforts have generally bound macroeconomic growth agendas to a mix of antidiscrimination policies, cultural tutelage, job training and punitive measures ranging from welfare reform to the carceral state.”
We need an equity framework that goes beyond racial reductionism and is based on the public good, which unfortunately isn’t currently en vogue among the jet-setting political class (just consider Obama’s and Clinton’s disdain for Bernie Sanders’ gruff championing of popular and necessary policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal).
It’s time we rethink our conception of ally-ship, placing a serious understanding of social structures, raw political power, economic solidarity and the public good at the center of any cross-racial alliance.
For example, if I’m governor and deep change means appointing a “too young, too blond, too Barbie” doctor who gets public service and can model true equitable leadership, then the job is hers.
And if I’m a white-collar, salaried employee at Amazon’s comfortable corporate offices in the Loop, then I’m speaking and acting out against the exploitation of wage workers at Amazon’s distribution centers.
If an institution has to endure bad optics in order to start genuinely looking at its own system and culture through a racial equity lens that is laser-focused on the economic and material roots of inequity, then so be it.