By Kevin C. Peterson
There is a commonly held saying among US blacks that speak to the tragic relationship African Americans experience within our country in context of the larger white society. It goes: when white people have a cold, black people get pneumonia.
The saying makes explicit an explanatory truth: when hard times hit European Americans, those same difficult times are intensified among members of the black community — who are comparatively poorer, less well-housed, under educated and unhealthy. The facticity of this sobering realism is being spelled out in the current ghastly death-count related to COVID-19.
The United States now leads globally in battling on behalf of its citizens against the deadly virus. The virus has devastated Americans with a swift and unforgiving magnitude as witnessed in New York City, New Jersey and New Orleans. It has shattered hearts and wreaked havoc in our homeland.
Yet, the underbelly of racial disparity detected concerning this unabated disease is seldom discussed with any seriousness or planning by national leadership at the White House.
The Washington Post has reported arresting facts about black America and COVID-19 that are indisputable:
While black Americans represent 28 percent of Milwaukee County, Wis. they are reflected in 73 percent of the area’s deaths, due to the virus.
African Americans reflect 67 percent of Chicago’s COVID-19 related deaths while representing only 32 percent of the city’s residents.
Blacks populate 21 percent of the state of North Carolina yet are dying due to the virus at a 38 percent rate. Even New England states like Connecticut and municipalities like Boston show remarkable disproportionality in relation to black misery against the backdrop of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 virus, and the extent to which blacks are vulnerable to it, points to the persistence of endemic racism in US society. It reflects a perversely uneven national healthcare system where blacks suffer high morbidity rates connected to systemic poverty. It characterizes a deliberately stratified economy where blacks are forced into service-level employment which exposes them to the virus in uneven ways relative to their white counterparts.
“We’ve know, literally forever, that diseases like diabetes, hypertension and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, particularly the African Americans,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force.
“Unfortunately when you look at the predisposing conditions that lead to a bad outcome with corona virus — the things that get people into ICUs that require incubation and often lead to death — they are just those very co-mobidities … There is nothing we can do about it right now to avoid those complications.”
Dr. Fauci is correct in saying that a long-term plan to address the vulnerability of blacks in the nation regarding systemic healthcare disparity is required. But short-term action is also needed. National triage is necessary for the black community. This short-term triage can have long-term positive outcomes.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot this week established a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to engage residents in economically distressed communities across her city, offering medical, housing and financial assistance in black neighborhoods. She called the lack of response to African Americans during the pandemic “breathtaking.”
In Boston, State Senator Nick Collins and State Representative Elizabeth Miranda have made remarkable steps in recent weeks by galvanizing civic leaders in their districts — providing access to funding and critical healthcare information to the mostly black communities of Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park that they serve. And in Boston the Episcopal City Mission has launched an agressive emergency fund responding to racism and its relation to the spread of the virus within Boston’s communities of color. Social media activist Jeff Durham has inaugurated an ongoing“Listen Up!” posting on COVID-19 on Facebook, which attracts thousands of followers.
Still, a national vision and vigorous leadership is needed to ameliorate the misery encountered by blacks in light of the contagion. As another wave of emergency federal assistance legislation makes it way through Congress and reaches the president’s desk, specific systemic-level policies should be directed toward alleviating the plight of black lives in the cities and regions impacted across the nation.
Specifically, a stimulus bill for blacks during this crisis is needed. It should address the massive impact that the COVID-19 is having on national black life in the short term. More importantly, the bill should look at long term social and racial problem-solving that can only be addressed by redesigning the national healthcare system, creating a post-high school learning environment that supports college completion and fairer access to the middle-class, whic is known to drastically reduce poverty.
Put succinctly, the upcoming stimulus bill should represent an opportunity to also focus on a long term system’s approach at eradicating social division based upon race. If this sounds like reparations, we can boldly say yes it is, in form of restorative policy interests by the US government.
Only then can we address the levels of inequality exposed recently by the COVID-19 and the unfortunate long-term legacy of racism that the virus reflects regarding the historic treatment of African Americans.