Viruses are a tool for understanding systemic racism in Medill Prof. Steven Thrasher’s new course


Courtesy of Steven Thrasher

Dr. Steven Thrasher is the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting. His new class provides a space for students to think and learn about how viruses intersect with issues such as race, sexuality, disability, economics and the news media.

Binah Schatsky, Assistant Campus Editor

On Oct. 5, four days after President Donald Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19, the students in Medill Prof. Steven Thrasher’s class were meeting on Zoom.

“Has there been anything in the news about viruses this weekend?” Thrasher asked the class, followed by a few seconds of muted laughter from the students’ screens.

Thrasher proposed the idea for “The Viral Underclass: How Journalists Cover Outbreaks, Depict Humans as Viruses and Make News Go Viral” in fall 2019. He wanted a space for students to think and learn about viruses, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, Ebola and more.

Then, the novel coronavirus hit, sweeping across the globe and completely overturning conversation of viruses as they previously stood.

“The Viral Underclass” is a joint journalism and gender studies course that provides a space for students to think and learn about how viruses intersect with issues such as race, sexuality, disability, economics and the news media.

The course is debuting in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike most public health-oriented spaces, in Thrasher’s course, the coronavirus functions alongside the stories of three other viruses — HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis (A, B, C) and influenza.

At the beginning of the quarter, students were split into four research groups of eight to 10 students each. Each group was assigned one of the four above viruses, and each week the group is responsible for discussing and synthesizing outside materials, relating their group’s virus to the course topic for the week. Weekly course topics include “Surveillance, Sickness and Mourning,” “Race/Racism” and “Scapegoats,” among others.

Weinberg sophomore Maddie Brown is in the coronavirus group. She said taking this class in the midst of the pandemic has helped her contextualize current events.

“In looking at COVID in light of these other pandemics, you just see how cyclical history is,” she said.

In Monday’s class, Brown presented on COVID-19 as it relates to the “Race/Racism” course topic. She emphasized the disproportionate effects that COVID-19 has had on Black, Latinx and Indigenous individuals and communities, in the United States in particular.

Medill senior Amar Shabeeb is in the influenza group, and she emphasized that her research has shown how historically, pandemics reflect patterns of “systemic afflictions,” such as the disproportionate impact of outbreak on communities of color, even if this dynamic is omitted from mainstream reporting.

“What you keep hearing is that this is an ‘unprecedented time,’” she said, “but it really isn’t.”

This examination of viruses as partners-in-crime to systemic inequalities is something that has guided Thrasher’s work since the beginning.

In 2014, Thrasher was in Ferguson the same week Michael Brown was killed. He has an extensive background reporting on the Black Lives Matter movement and researching the intersection between racism, homophobia, policing, medecine, incarceration, culture and health. In his classroom, he emphasizes both journalistic and academic methods of learning. He said he sees viruses as a powerful way of understanding society.

“We’ve learned how to use police violence as a way to understand structural racism,” he said. “I’ve started using viruses.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BinahSchatskyjo

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