COVID-19 does not see race, color, or nationality; but it does attack the vulnerable and require the collective will of a society to stop. Communities of color have always been excluded, exploited, and vulnerable to attack in America, so it was inevitable that the coronavirus would come for us. Tragically, our society still needs data to prove the possibility of the inevitable, and now the data is pouring in.
On CBS This Morning on Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who is black, acknowledged that African-Americans are at a higher risk of COVID-19 due to systemic inequalities. He talked about how he is prediabetic, has heart disease, high blood pressure, and asthma—and he attributed his ailments to the “legacy of growing up poor and black in America.”
Adams was born in 1974, and is clearly a smart, hard-working, and accomplished man. He’s worked his way out of poverty, but the poverty he was born into and that makes him more vulnerable to the coronavirus is the legacy of Jim Crow and systemic racism. This was an intentional impoverishing and enfeebling of the black community that still poses a life-threatening danger to even the most accomplished African-Americans.
In Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19 are black despite only accounting for a third of the state’s population. Just this morning my mother sent me a text message telling me that our family friend Orlando (Skip) Wright, who lives in Louisiana, died from COVID-19. My mom has known him since they were both children growing up in the segregated South. They even went to prom together, long before she met my father.
In Chicago, 72 percent of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 are African-American, despite making up less than a third of the population. And the majority of Chicago’s black population is concentrated on the South Side that has been a historically underfunded and neglected part of the city.
In Milwaukee, another segregated Midwestern city, African-Americans make up less than 30 percent of the population, but account for nearly 75 percent of the deaths.
Last week, The Atlantic reported that COVID-19 is especially lethal in the South, due to the endemic poverty of the region and the ensuing health complications such as obesity, heart and lung disease, and hypertension. These lethal threats are especially high amongst the black community in the South.
None of this data should be a surprise because since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, the white-dominated South has based its way of life around legitimizing the impoverishment, malnourishment, and oppression of black people.
Yet the legacy of America’s previous horrors, only partially accounts for today’s tragedy.
Incompetent Republican governors, such as Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have been slow to act and have left their states increasingly vulnerable. Last Thursday, Gov. Kemp publicly stated that he had only recently become aware that asymptomatic people could spread the coronavirus.
Republican ignorance combined with their dislike of universal health care creates an inevitable crisis that will disproportionately harm communities of color. Kemp’s negligence, which is so egregious that is should be considered criminal, reflects nearly the entirety of the Republican response to this crisis at the state and federal level.
Additionally, communities of color often fill the jobs that municipalities deem “essential” such as mailmen, and garbage collectors. They are unable to stay at home, and potentially expose themselves to the virus every day despite being the most susceptible to dying from COVID-19.
The horrors of the past combined with the inequality and ignorance of the present creates a life-threatening crisis within the black community that Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot describes as “breathtaking.”
And while the numbers are breathtaking, they should not be shocking. The alarming number of African-American COVID-19 deaths represents an American-made tragedy created by our society’s systematic disregard for black life.
Just as data confirms the possibility of the inevitable, data can also provide Americans with the information to change our status quo and create a more equitable society.
Right now a group of Democratic lawmakers, Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, are calling on the department of Health and Human Services to provide comprehensive racial data regarding the spread and impact of COVID-19.
“Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole…. This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities,” they warned in a letter sent to HHS.
The tragedy befalling America’s black community is both American-made, and impairing our capacity to prevent the virus spreading. Yet despite the importance of this information to protect black, and all Americans, no one expects the Trump administration to act on this vital need. But Joe Biden must act.
Biden was left for dead in the presidential race, but his support amongst black voters catapulted him to an almost insurmountable delegate lead in less than a month. Black voters could put him in the White House, but we will need to know that he has our back during a time of crisis.
Biden needs to join forces with his fellow Democrats and get vocal about how the pandemic is disproportionately harming communities of color, and what he plans on doing to address this crisis.
The disparity in death rates does take your breath away. But if the end result remains inaction from both sides of the political aisle and a continued normalization of systemic inequality, America may never recover from COVID-19.