By Jyarland Daniels, executive director of Harriet Speaks, an organization doing diversity differently providing a Black voice and perspective in diversity, equity, & inclusion
I write this because I teach and talk about race, diversity, and equity for a living, so there aren’t too many topics in this space that I am silent on. However, I prefer to “think fast, and speak slow” and try to offer thoughtful insights (vs regurgitation) where/if I can. I’m not here to be right or wrong — just to think.
The facts speak for themselves. There is a disparity between not only who contracts this virus, but also in the death rate. Black people are most likely to experience both. But just touting this data (as is too often being done) and attaching the word “racism” to this situation is incomplete, alarming, and confusing. And, I find some of it paralyzing; discussing race without steps to take can have that effect.
Racism is at play here. But we have to do better when it comes to talking about race. We must be specific in identifying that it is structural and institutional racism we are talking about and also be willing to concede that while race is a factor, it is not the only factor.
I find it helpful to analyze this by separating the factors related to contracting the virus from the factors that increase morbidity.
1) Let’s start with contracting the virus and race. We are seeing large cities, where people live in close proximity to others, are most impacted. (Side note: Covid-19 is coming to rural towns and communities, too. It’s just not there, yet, and I think they are woefully unprepared. Black people do inhabit rural, small towns. It will be interesting to see what happens to this conversation in those places. But, the media, like politicians, is fixated on cities and has this tendency to erase folks who live outside of large areas, so cities are the conversation for now.) Black ppl are over represented in large cities like NYC, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago. Cities in this country are heavily black and brown because of discriminatory government policies (post WWII) so we can consider racism in the housing sector as a factor. Statistics that compare the % of Black ppl in an entire state to total Blacks who have died from coronavirus are far less helpful in my view than stats that compare what is happening in among the general population in Wayne County to among Black people in Wayne County. And! Even more helpful, would be to look at the stats of a suburban city/county and see if the disparities continue to be as pronounced. I project they will remain, but will have less shock value.
Black people are over-represented in service jobs and in many cities (NYC) rely on public transportation — both factors leading to close contact with many people. This can be attributed to education and employment discrimination and class disparities. Charles Blow said it best, “Social distancing is a privilege.”
But, there are other factors in my community related to contracting this disease that we aren’t discussing. One is our willingness to traffic in and believe bad information. For the first few weeks of this thing many Black people (mostly young and/or under-educated) believed that we couldn’t get it. It may have started as a joke, but some took it very seriously. In the age of pandemics our oral tradition, made worse by social media, can be deadly. The second factor is our (often justified) distrust of the media.
So what do we do? We start to educate our community on which are reputable sources of information for future health crises and create a culture where we go to those sources first. But, we also have to correct one another and shut down misinformation. Most of us have friends who are engaging in conspiracy theories and in this moment those theories can be deadly because they strangle conversations based on facts.
2) Then there are the factors that lead to us dying at higher rates. There is racism there, too. But again, that isn’t the total picture. Conditions like asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes are more prevalent in the Black community in part due to structural racism. We are most likely to live near industries that cause pollution. The stress of fighting oppression and limited healthy food options for many Black people are all due to racism by different institutions. But, we have to do better in taking care of ourselves. How in the world can we expect a country that has shown over and over that our lives don’t matter to be advocates for our health? Not gonna happen. When our health becomes our greatest currency, then we can reverse some (not all) of these factors. (Side note: White people are obese, too. But their deaths may be getting different media treatment. Two days ago the death of a young, severely overweight white man was reported as a COVID-19 death “with no underlying causes.”)
So what do we do? We demand elected officials make combating these other conditions a priority in our communities when there is NOT a global pandemic. It seems as if some diseases (because they impact us more) are just ACCEPTED. Why do we have to accept diabetes or high blood pressure as a condition? I’m no doctor or scientist, but when is the last time we heard of new research and/or funding going to diseases that heavily impact Black people? My thinking is we take these stats and understand that during a pandemic there is likely nothing that can be done to address that these factors are leading to us dying more. But what we CAN do is get ready, because I fear outbreaks like this are our new normal. We are experiencing the first shock. We can demand increased attention, focus, and money to these disease states. I wonder if the focus on health care in our community (which is critically important) has taken the place of the desire to cure and alleviate. Health care allows you to go to the doctor and get some pills, but those pills don’t save you from risks associated with dying from something like coronavirus. Can we focus on the care and the cure?
I write this because I worry. I worry that simply saying, “racism” without context is harmful. I worry that if we begin to think of coronavirus as a virus that is mostly impacting Black people that the rush to treat and cure will wane. I worry that the compassion will diminish. And before you tell me I shouldn’t worry about that, sit down and reflect on the history of this country. As Van Jones said, this pandemic sits on top of several epidemics.
I worry that the way this is being discussed will lead to many in my community, for whom living without a pandemic is risky business, viewing coronavirus as “just another risk.”
Nuance, the idea of “yes-and”, and belief that multiple things can be true at the same time is so necessary in this conversation. So many of our conversations about race forget the “and.”