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Blacks, COVID-19: Chance for Change


People, who believe they have COVID-19, wait on line to be tested in Brooklyn, New York (Photo by Telangana Today)

“When America catches colds, black folks get pneumonia.”

This is a folk saying among African Americans. So, it was not surprising to learn that yet another medical condition is hitting my community the hardest.

Black Americans are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates and are more likely to die, reported the Washington Post on April 7.

In Chicago, more than 50 percent of COVID-19 cases and nearly 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths are of blacks, who comprise only 30 percent of the population, according to the Chicago Tribune on April 7. Moreover, these deaths are largely concentrated in five neighborhoods on the city’s South Side, which the U.S. Census Bureau reported as 93 percent African American.

In Louisiana, 70.5 percent of deaths are of blacks people, who comprise only 32.2 percent of the state’s population, said U.S. News & World Report on April 7.

In Michigan, 33 percent of COVID-19 cases and 40 percent of deaths are blacks, who comprise only 14 percent of the population, reported the Washington Post.

Why is this? There are many reasons.

Black Americans are more likely than others to have underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes (60 percent more likely than other groups to have been diagnosed with “the sugar”), which makes them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

There is racial bias within the health system, once African Americans get into it. There is also mistrust of health professionals stemming from past injustices such as the infamous Tuskegee study between 1932 and 1972 of untreated syphilis in 600 black men, who were told that they were receiving free health care from the federal government.

Many black Americans work in jobs which they cannot do online. They are the bus drivers, Federal Express workers, health carers and other essential employees, who are more at risk for contracting and transmitting the virus because they cannot stay at home.

Some in the black community question whether the COVID-19 crisis was planned to reduce the population, just as we did at the height of the AIDS crisis, when a disproportionate number of us died in the United States. Genocide is never far from our minds.

Are you tired of hearing about blacks suffering inequities? I sure am.

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of it.

I am embarrassed by my country’s sociopathic relationship with race. I have lived in Europe for 25 years. People ask me about race in America. Their eyes widen as I answer their questions. It is not that they have not read about racism or seen it depicted on the screen. Europeans often know more about race relations in America than do many Americans. Their reaction comes from hearing a friend tell stories that are beyond understanding.

Sometimes, I have been so distressed by my conveyance of the truth of it that I have tried to backtrack by adding that my experience was in the past, surely things are better now. For example, I see more black faces on television and in film, something I rarely saw as a child. But then, I read statistics that reveal wide disparities of wealth between blacks and other Americans, despite higher education.

It is clear to me that we cannot solve problems like health disparities, in a piecemeal fashion, by focusing solely on health. We have to tackle the underlying larger problem of systemic racism. If we don’t, the writing of James Baldwin (1924-1987) will be relevant for another 50 years from now. I Am Not Your Negro, which had a 98 percent approval rating on the film website, Rotten Tomatoes, was based on Baldwin’s work and released in 2016. It “offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s crucial observations on American race relations – and a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.”

I am so saddened by this.

What can be done to effect change for a fairer future?

The national government has to make a heartfelt and formal apology to African Americans. It codified slavery in the Constitution. Therefore, it is only right that it recognizes its complicity and apologizes for it.

The United States government has apologized to other groups upon which it has committed atrocities. To native Americans, it apologized in 2009 for “its many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples“. To native Hawaiians, it apologized in 1993 for overthrowing the monarchy, stealing their land and its treatment of them. To the 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62 percent of whom were American citizens, who endured evacuation and incarceration in concentration camps during World War II, President Ronald Reagan apologized in 1988.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized to the 600 black men in the Tuskegee public health experiment. Officials lied to the men, telling them that they would receive free medical care when they, in fact, were being studied for the effect of untreated syphilis.

Clinton said to the victims: “It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.”

This is the purpose of apologies, to admit wrongdoing and atone for it by being better.

Other groups have apologized for slavery. The Episcopalian Church offered a formal apology in 2008, calling it “the sin and fundamental betrayal of humanity”. In so doing, it joined other denominations and the Church of England, which voted to acknowledge its complicity in the slave trade.

“We are saying that we have marginalized and oppressed others, and have not regarded everyone as God’s equal creation, but we’re not going to be that way anymore,” said the Rev. Jayne Oasin, program officer for Anti-Racism and Gender Equality for the Episcopal Church.

Also, Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, apologized in 2017 for its role in the slave trade, including its president’s sale of 272 slaves.

Nine of the 18 states with slave populations before the Civil War have issued official apologies. Some of the largest slave-holding states, such as Mississippi and Kentucky, have not done so. Mississippi, finally, ratified the Constitution’s 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1995, 130 years after the federal government. Kentucky ratified the 13th amendment in 1976.

On the national level, the House of Representatives in 2008 and the Senate in 2009 passed resolutions apologizing for slavery, but no joint bill was passed. Since 1989, prominent African Americans have proposed more expansive bills, which include reparations, to address America’s original sin. Yet, they all call for the basic first step of a formal national apology.

All the legislative and judicial gains for civil rights, which I’ve seen in my lifetime starting with Brown vs. Board of Education for school desegregation in 1954, must be charged with the emotional power of an apology. Without the sanction of the heart, laws and court rulings are weak. For 400 years, it’s been one step forward, two steps back, over and over again. When laws are broken, an appeal is made to the courts, which either uphold or reject the law. But more laws and rulings do not make them any stronger.

A sincere apology would be a morally redemptive act for the descendants of slaves and owners, and all Americans who have inherited a country built by slaves and an unequal socioeconomic structure biased against blacks.

In 1860, there were more than 3.9 million slaves in a total U.S. population of 31 million,” according to an NBC News opinion piece on August 30, 2019. “If any national bad deed deserves an apology, the scale of this atrocity demands it.”

The nation cannot move on until it acknowledges its past. Former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, who supports an apology and reparations, believes that a true history must be taught to Americans, a history that most African Americans know. I don’t agree. I think that most Americans know the truth, but many think that it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with them.

The NBC News piece said: “Many of the victims’ descendants will deem a belated official apology sorely inadequate. Mere empty words. Indeed, how could saying ‘sorry’ ever be enough to cure a wrong as profound as mass enslavement? It cannot. But a well-made apology can formally acknowledge America’s collective history and offer a necessary first step in righting the national conscience by affirming its principles.

“Indeed, it is exactly those moments when moral courage trumped political or economic expediency – the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, same-sex marriage – that have come to define the most important American values.”

Like Steyer, I also support economic reparations, specifically, funds earmarked for education and housing, and savings for children, when they reach age 17, for the same purposes.

“Black families’ median and mean worth is less than 15 percent that of white families (in 2016),” according to FEDS Notes of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board of September 27, 2017.

“Newly released data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) show that wealth rose for families in all race and ethnicity groups between 2013 and 2016. The long-standing and substantial wealth disparities between families of different racial and ethnic groups, however, have changed little in the past few years. Wealth losses during the Great Recession, and the magnitude and timing of the recovery, also varied substantially across families grouped by race and ethnicity.”

Reparations will help reduce the wealth gap. The government has made reparations to other groups. Other nations have made reparations to people whom they have wronged.

But before anything else, there must be an apology, which would change the tone of discussions and actions regarding race relations in the United States. Think of the difference an apology makes in personal interactions. Often, an apology makes it possible to talk when that was impossible before.

This is what Australia’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in Parliament to the country’s indigenous population:

“I move that today we honor the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

“We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect, in particular, on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations (children taken from their families) – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. The time has come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

“We apologize for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians.

“We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we are sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we are sorry.

“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

“We, the Parliament of Australia, respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

“For the future, we take heart, resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

“We, today, take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where, this Parliament resolves, that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

“A future, where we harness the determination of all Australian, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

“A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

“A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

“A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.”

The United States must take this “first step”. Then, it has a chance of reducing disparities, health and others, in the African American community.

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