Black America Gets Pneumonia

From Black Enterprise, May 24, 2020
by Terri Lee Freeman

Just as 9/11 defined the new millennium, the novel coronavirus will certainly be the story of the decade. 

The global pandemic has caused a devastating public health crisis, initiated a global economic disaster, and in the United States, pulled back the curtain on the deep-rooted racial inequities that persist. Just as COVID-19 is a deadly virus, so is the disease of racism, particularly systemic racism.

We now have data to support what many of us already knew, when America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the coronavirus discriminates. It certainly does not. But the conditions that allow the disease to flourish have a 400-year history rooted in racism—inadequate housing, over-policed neighborhoods, limited access to fresh foods, uninsured or under-insured health needs, poor-quality schools, and low-wage (aka essential) jobs.

Essential workers are the people who make the world go around. For this writing, I’m not speaking of our front line healthcare workers (although we are truly indebted to their service and tireless and heroic efforts), but the other folks who work in designated essential roles. They are the people we take for granted until we can’t. They are the people who fight on the “front lines” and don’t have the option to shelter in place. They are the folks who work public transportation, process meat, ring up and bag groceries, make and serve our breakfast sandwiches, pick up our trash, sanitize and clean our offices, and the private security staff. They are the people for whom Dr. Martin Luther King marched and died.

The data is clear, African Americans are dying from the coronavirus at higher rates than other populations. As more data and anecdotal evidence became available and published it simply confirmed what I expected, black folks continue to get the short end of the stick. From the story of a young woman in New York who died from the virus because she couldn’t get tested, to the young man who was brutalized by the police in New York for not wearing a face mask, to the security guard who was shot for asking a patron to put on a face mask.

The real story is what are we going to finally do about these inequities. When are we going to correct these wrongs? When are we going to ensure that work pays, especially for essential workers?  When will we create a healthcare system that focuses on wellness, where physicians determine treatment, not insurance companies? When will our school systems be accepting of ALL children, have high expectations of ALL children, and teach all of them to succeed, not simply teach them to pass a test? When will the water in Flint’s majority African American community be as safe to drink as the water in Bloomfield Hills? And when will an African American man be able to jog through his community without fearing for his life?

Martin Luther King Jr. was wholly focused on the issues of poverty and labor before his assassination in 1968, 52 years ago. “With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

Fifty-two years later we ask, how long is until? 

If this pandemic has not demonstrated the inequities that drive our system of capitalism and that none of us will be well until all of us are well, I’m not sure what it will take for us to get it. Black America has suffered the brunt of the ills of our society for far too long. Let us not waste this crisis. Let’s stop talking about equity and just do it!

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