Scott Gabriel Knowles Is on a Quest to Understand What the Pandemic Reveals About Americans

In his daily livestream interviews, the Drexel University disaster expert talks to public health officials and historians of federalism and environmental researchers and other social scientists who are trying, like he is, to understand how America can evolve.

Scott Gabriel Knowles

Drexel University’s Scott Gabriel Knowles. Photograph by Stevie Chris

Scott Gabriel Knowles, the head of the history department at Drexel University and an expert on disasters, found himself in an intense public discussion with two other academics about the COVID-19 pandemic back in mid-May. They were talking about masks.

“Black men go through what we call in sociology a signaling process,” Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Knowles. The two were talking during one of the daily online discussions Knowles began hosting in late March, a series he’s dubbed “COVIDCalls.”

“They try to signal that they belong, they try to signal their social class,” Ray continued. If, for example, Black men go out for a run, “They do things like wearing alumni t-shirts, they run in well-lit areas, they run in places where other people are. They always have an ID on them. They wave and smile at neighbors.” Ray laughed. “Who does that? Running is difficult enough. …They do that so there’s a witness if something happens, which becomes important, but also to try to deflect from the stereotypes they know to exist about their own bodies. When you layer that with a mask, it becomes stereotypes on steroids.”

“This really does tie into this historical notion,” said Sharrona Pearl, a professor of medical ethics at Drexel and an expert on the history of masks, “that people who are covering their faces have something to hide. … The Black male body is already read as angry, always already read as violent.”

Which has led over the past few months, Ray noted, to Black men going into stores to buy something and being asked to remove their masks, or to leave. “This is crazy!” he said. “They’re in a pandemic!”

Scott Knowles has written extensively about fires raging through cities, about the threat of nuclear holocaust, about Hurricane Katrina. The plight of Black men in public might seem a little far afield for a disaster researcher. Not at all, says Knowles: “Disasters punch down.” By that, he means vulnerable people — the elderly, the sick, the poor and, often, people of color — take the brunt of trouble when big, catastrophic events hit.

Knowles’s view isn’t unique in the disaster community. Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Knowles, “One of the most enduring lessons of disaster is related to this issue with exposing and further opening up already-existing fault lines.” Exposing problems offers an opportunity as well: “I think there absolutely is an opening, and I think we are clearly at a crossroads,” Peek said.

That sense of opportunity was, in large part, the motivation for Knowles to launch COVIDCalls, hour-long conversations with experts that he streams live every weekday at 5 p.m. on YouTube. (The discussions are also available as a podcast.) Knowles talks to public health officials and historians of federalism and environmental researchers and other social scientists who are trying, like he is, to understand how America can evolve. As of late June, Knowles is up to 71 COVIDCalls; he plans to keep rolling with them, in his genial and measured way, at least until the end of the year.

Talking is one thing, however, and action is another. “What is on my mind,” Knowles says, “is how can we be ready to be heard in this moment?” Since he’s a historian, Knowles believes step one is collecting data, via the daily calls. Then it’s a matter, he says, of “getting the knowledge into play.” It’s the anti-Trump approach — one ruled by science and trying to do good.

Knowles drills deep into the minutiae of what’s being exposed. The conversation with Sharrona Pearl and Rashawn Ray was COVIDCall 45, on May 15th, and Knowles came away from it feeling that he’d learned something important. He’d bought a mask himself in January, one decorated with a skull and teeth — without an agenda or a thought about how anyone would react to it. That’s something a Black man in this country couldn’t do.

Dealing with how he’s perceived in public is, for Ray, as for other Black men, “part of his everyday life,” Knowles says now. “When we say that disasters reveal society as it is, that’s really what I mean.”

Katrina changed the direction of Scott Knowles’s work.

He was researching a doctorate in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins, flying to Chicago to study a 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theater, when the 9/11 terrorist attack hit. His view then of disasters tended to be technical — to consider how the Twin Towers were designed, for example. “If the Empire State Building had been hit, things would have been different,” Knowles says; he believes that building would have survived a similar attack. “It woke me up to how historians had badly undersold how to tell these complicated stories.”

But Katrina was a different matter altogether for Knowles, who grew up middle-class in Texas: “We were watching the drowning of an American city and seeing poverty and racism exposed in ways I had never seen in my lifetime. I started seeing disasters as revelations.”

He began to take students on visits to New Orleans. One of his April COVIDCalls was with a New Orleans journalist and two directors at a plantation museum. Thanks to petrochemical plants along the Mississippi — known as “Cancer Alley” — the incidence of cancer is high among poor people of color in southern Louisiana, and COVID-19 has disproportionately infected them as well.

Knowles is well aware that he’s fighting a sordid history of how we’ve dealt with the social problems he sees COVID-19 making worse. One of his COVIDCalls was with Michael Yudell, a Drexel professor who focuses on the ethics of public health. Yudell told listeners about W.E.B. Du Bois coming to Philadelphia in 1896, fresh from Harvard, with a project: He spent a couple of months walking South Street from 7th Street to the Schuylkill, taking notes on health disparities and other problems caused by poverty, racism and poor housing, especially in the Black community. “That was 124 years ago,” Yudell said. “Here we are, 124 years later, still trying to quantify health disparities that we know exist. Yes, the Band-Aid has been ripped off … but how do we pivot to push society to really take up these issues in a way that leads to change? Because we can measure this stuff to death, which in some ways is what we’ve been doing.”

Of course, data has to be acted upon. One of the startling revelations about the 1918 flu epidemic that swept the world and killed nearly 20,000 Philadelphians was how the federal government kept it under wraps; Knowles researched newspaper reports from the time it was spreading, and nothing turned up. There were concerns that the war effort would be undermined by fears of spreading disease, which undoubtedly helped make that epidemic worse; the flu would kill far more Americans than the war did.

This country doesn’t prepare well for catastrophe. Knowles’s 2011 book The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America includes a chapter on civil preparedness in Philadelphia for a nuclear attack during the Cold War. It reads almost comically, with municipal calls for armies of volunteers who would do this and that as the city got annihilated; very few volunteers were actually enlisted or prepared to do anything. “It’s the most analogous disaster to this time,” Knowles says, in the sense of potential scale and “the government asking us to wait as they figure it out.”

In some ways, little changes: 15 years ago, public health experts presented the possibility of a pandemic to Mayor John Street, arguing that it was something the city needed to prepare for carefully. But they might as well have been talking about Martians landing for all the seriousness he gave it, according to an official who tried to make the case to the mayor.

So it goes. We tend to bounce from disaster to disaster, as if there’s nothing to be learned from what came before.

But there is some optimism now. Both Knowles and Esther Chernak, a professor of environmental health at Drexel, with a background of 25 years working in Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, believe our two-tier system of health care — that is, those with insurance and those without — needs to change. That the substandard care of people who can’t afford health insurance has become so wrenchingly obvious during the pandemic that even a Trump-led federal government will have to address it.

Knowles’s COVIDCall with Daniel Zarrilli, the chief climate policy adviser in New York City, gave some measure of hope for tackling a problem even worse than the pandemic: climate change. During America’s self-imposed quarantine from March to June, carbon emissions were greatly reduced, which is a marker, at least, of what’s possible if we push to be greener when we return to a new normal. Maybe more important, the acceptance of quarantining and social distancing suggests Americans really can embrace collective action.

With climate change, though, Knowles, optimistic by nature, is less sunny than Zarrilli. He worries that the collective approach across the entire country — with climate change, of course, federal leadership is paramount — will still be a monumental challenge.

But Knowles’s preternatural hopefulness is strong. His answer to Michael Yudell’s pessimism that we’ve been looking at problems of poverty and racism forever without action is that “we’re at an inflection point. I tie it to Vietnam. The inflection point there was when every street in America had buried a son.”

And there’s one more thing: Knowles’s students are mad, especially at our political leaders who do little. Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily get the brunt of the rage — to a lot of students, he’s incomprehensible, “an extraterrestrial,” Knowles says. Students are demanding change of all leaders. This generation wants action.

But how does it happen?

Scott Knowles, 47 years old, who has been holed up at home in Princeton since March, doesn’t shy away from the criticism that academics are sometimes buried in pursuits that have little effect on the rest of us.

“I think that’s exactly right,” he says. “In some disciplines, that’s probably fine. But I don’t see at this point why we’d continue to fund disaster research unless we’re bending the curve of helping vulnerable populations. We need to see results. … The assumption is that if we attack social problems as science” — measuring the poor medical care that impoverished people receive, for example — “that makes it easy for political leadership to take action.”

But that’s only true if those leaders know about the work — and feel the heat. So Knowles is beating the drum with his COVIDCalls, trying to build a network of policymakers and journalists. He’s also put out a call to create a union of concerned disaster scientists, inspired by the Union of Concerned Scientists that was created during the Vietnam War, when domestic science innovation was being gobbled up by the U.S. government to help the war machine. “There has to be some risk-taking, too,” Knowles says. “We have to have more skin in the game.”

He’s sounding like an activist. To that end, Knowles invited Rashawn Ray, the University of Maryland sociology professor, on another COVIDCall at the onset of the turmoil on American streets at the end of May, four days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It occurred to me,” Knowles said across cyberspace from his book-lined study to Ray’s book-lined study, “that one thing we could have counted on is that there would be an incident of racial violence amid the pandemic — we didn’t need to look very far for that kind of compound disaster. … What is this revealing?”

“The way I’ve been describing it is that in the United States, we have a series of epidemics within the pandemic,” Ray told him. “It could be argued that the most fundamental pandemic in the United States and the world … that racism is the big pandemic that we have to deal with.” Ray went on to share grim numbers of the incidence of police violence against Black men, which he then connected to policing of social distancing in New York: “About 80 percent of all the people stopped for social distancing violations were Black or Latino.”

Knowles laid out some numbers from Minnesota: According to one count in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Black people had contracted at least 29 percent of the known COVID-19 cases, though they make up six percent of the population. “What more evidence do we need that disasters more generally, health more specifically, and COVID-19 to the point — how else can you describe it than to say that it is exacerbating and underlining racism in America?”

“You know, Scott,” Ray said, “I don’t think we need anything else.”

Published as “The Disaster Researcher” in the August 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.