Demise of the Black Image
The term “black death” can be defined in more than one way.
As the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe, it’s taking its fiercest toll on black people in America, killing African Americans at an egregious rate.
However, in the process, black America is suffering another form of fatality: the death of its image.
In watching news reports and reading articles published on the impact of COVID-19 in the United States, the numbers say that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus. And those numbers are correct.
But there is also a narrative that is alive and well, and it too is assailing the black community.
Have a look at this clip:
In it, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Michael Adams addresses the spread of COVID-19 across the nation and specifically in minority communities. He outlines the efforts it will take to lessen the spread. He tells viewers to wash their hands, stop doing drugs and stop drinking alcohol.
Then, he ends his address with this:
“We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Momma. Do it for you pop-pop. We need you to understand, especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so we can protect those who are most vulnerable.”
Although his overall point holds validity and should apply to all Americans, he seems to change course and direct his narrative towards communities of color with this final directive.
CNN’s Bakari Sellers addressed Dr. Adams’ remarks in his column, What the Surgeon General gets wrong about African Americans and Covid-19.
The racial disparities that persist in America are clear and comprehensible, but leaders like Dr. Jerome Michael Adams fail to see the picture.
As surgeon general, Adams is the lead spokesperson on public health matters for the United States government. Yet, last week Adams urged African Americans to stop drinking, smoking or doing drugs to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Adams’ remarks not only perpetuate harmful narratives about black communities, but he blames African Americans for getting sick. When asked about his remarks, Adams said that his remarks were not meant to be offensive and that the guidelines are meant for all communities.
While it brings joy to see a black man in a position of power, a leader who can address the nation from the White House press briefing, it also brings sadness to see that he too is missing the point.
The black community struggles with obesity not because black people eat too much – it struggles with obesity because low-income communities lack healthy food options, among other things.
The black community suffers more from high blood pressure not because it refuses to exercise and consume less salt – it suffers more because black people have less access to the healthcare system.
However, part of the narrative continues to revolve around how black people create these issues within their own community, and for that reason, COVID-19 is taking a greater toll on African Americans.
In his essay, Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University Ibram X. Kendi considers the antiquated belief that black people suffering from underlying health conditions is disconnected from racism in America:
Why are black people generally being infected and dying at higher rates than other racial groups? This is the question of the hour. And too many Americans are answering this new question in the old, familiar way. They are blaming poverty, but refusing to recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion.
And Americans are blaming black people. To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying medical conditions but, crucially, they’re not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.
We are not only being killed by the disease – we are being killed by the narrative.
Consider the nightmarish statistics in the state of Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp recently allowed hair salons, gyms and other businesses to reopen within the past two weeks: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report this past Wednesday revealing that 83 percent of the people hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Georgia are black, despite black people making up only 32 percent of the state’s population.
Have a look at this chart from Business Insider:
Are we to take away from this that only black people suffer from underlying health conditions?
There are clearly greater forces at work, yet we are supposed to believe that it’s our health issues that have created this climate.
If you do a Google search for “black people covid-19” or “african americans coronavirus,” you will find a number of articles that address the racial disparities affecting black Americans through this pandemic. You will also find that black writers most often write these stories.
But if you analyze a story such as this one in USA Today, entitled, Coronavirus, diabetes, obesity and other underlying conditions: Which patients are most at risk?, you will have to scroll all the way to the bottom to see the problem.
After going through the statistics, pointing out how hypertension and obesity and diabetes, coupled with COVID-19, increase the possibility of hospitalization or death, the story adds this paragraph at the conclusion:
Some communities may be more vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19 than others. A racial disparity has been evident in data on coronavirus deaths in Louisiana, Illinois, South Carolina and Mississippi published by state health departments. One possible reason there are more deaths among black Americans in these states is that this group is more likely to have the health conditions likely to cause complications. However, it’s not clear to researchers why these disparities exist.
That final line says it all.
Until we universally acknowledge that we know exactly why these disparities exist, black people will be forced to continue shouldering the blame for their own demise.