What Oprah’s Coronavirus Special on Black America Leaves Out
The inimitable Oprah Winfrey released a COVID-19 special, “The Deadly Impact on Black America,” on Apple TV+. But there are some gaping holes that it fails to address.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey has met the COVID-19 moment with her primary skill set: talking through it. In her Oprah Talks series addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, The Deadly Impact on Black America, released for free today on Apple TV+ (and airing on OWN this evening), she speaks to two black families who recently have lost loved ones in Chicago and Milwaukee, where black deaths from the novel coronavirus are disproportionately high. The overall effect of the 45-minute episode is mixed: On one hand, it’s informative on a wide range of perspectives on the subject; on the other, it emphasizes individual responsibility while relegating the larger, systemic issues that ensure black death in America to a vague side project.
Oprah follows up with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, CNN commentator Van Jones, New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the American Medical Association’s Chief of Health Equity Dr. Aletha Maybank. And there’s a musical coda by Jennifer Hudson, steeped in gospel affect with a montage of black families at home together. Lightfoot’s segment is, predictably, the most troubling. The mayor seems to accept that there are certain “realities” of black life (and death) in Chicago, and believes her responsibility as mayor is to transmit certain “messaging to the young men who are trigger pullers” as well as being “aggressive not only with education but with enforcement and compliance.” Lightfoot finishes off her message with one of, yes, “hope.”
What Lightfoot’s desire for more aggression in the face of tragedy speaks to is the punitive measures that are popularized not only under white supremacy in the U.S. but even among black civil service. The idea that young men who engage in violence need more stern talking-tos and rounding up by the police rather than vastly transformed material conditions and care is pervasive and convincing because the former provides a relatively quick “fix.” As mayor, you can cuff and ticket people tomorrow—the question of providing them with healthcare, housing, clean air and water, and accessible, nutritious food requires a longer, more dedicated, and active struggle.
Van Jones, who’s made his media career on being a mainstream liberal black voice, tells Oprah about his COVID jail reform partnership with Jay-Z, focusing on getting elders and other “vulnerable” or low-level offense prisoners released from jail (and also getting them PPE when possible). In this segment, Oprah says that many of her viewers will likely respond, “Why should we care about people who end up in there?” Both Oprah and Jones reply that it’s the prison guards we should really be worried about, since they’re coming in and out of prisons, back home to their families, and into society. It’s a dark exchange that has a cheery tone of helpful pragmatism, and speaks to exactly why contingent jail reform—fighting only for the “innocent,” “non-violent,” or “too old to do further harm”—often has sinister underlying logic, and thus only serves to fortify the current system by making it more palatable to the public.
Oprah does speak to people who are willing to get at the root of the issues that put black communities disproportionately at risk to contract and die from COVID-19. Both Nikole Hannah-Jones and Dr. Maybank explicitly address environmental racism, segregation, and food insecurity as the systemic obstacles that make black Americans more likely to have hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and asthma—the pre-existing conditions that seem to be the most deadly for those who contract the virus. But while both are adept at identifying and explaining how racism kills, neither are asked to provide actionable steps for black people to try to undermine or dismantle the systems that are killing us. Mutual-aid networks—the community groups and organizations keeping black communities fed and protected—are never mentioned.
The two families Oprah speaks to, the Marshalls and the Rileys, give a face to some of the suffering experienced by black families who did not see the threat of the virus coming and have to put their closest loved ones to rest, at a distance. But we don’t hear from people in these communities who have experienced homelessness, are in prison (or were recently released), or are unable to safely go outside for a daily walk because their neighborhoods are severely polluted or otherwise unsafe.
The Deadly Impact on Black America speaks about the most vulnerable but never to them. As a result, the episode will be most useful to the black individuals who feel that they have some measure of control over their day-to-day lives under the pandemic. This may include healthcare and grocery store workers, who will find tips about what to do when they come home from work to their families useful and actionable. But as for those left on the streets or in the prisons, they will have to look to each other, as well as to the groups and organizations that have dared to look to them, for anything concrete.