400 Years is Not A Trend: COVID-19 Exposes The Impact of Institutional Racism in America

When Gov. John Bel Edwards announced during his daily COVID-19 press conference on Monday that a disturbing trend had emerged, his statement on the subject was so brief that we weren’t sure everyone had heard it.

By now, you know what he shared: African Americans, who comprise only 32 percent of the state’s population, made up 70 percent of Louisiana’s COVID-related deaths so far. Then he went on to say something about high blood pressure being an underlying factor in the disparate death rate of Black Louisianans amid the COVID-19 crisis.

He also said the “trend” was worthy of further study. And Louisiana is not alone. Across the nation, the virus similarly impacts Black communities. For example, in Chicago, Blacks comprise 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths there as well, while making up only about 30 percent of the state’s population.

Before we go any further, we have a few points for our governor. First, Gov. Edwards, we are hoping and praying that you don’t think hypertension is really the underlying reason Black folks are dying from this virus at a rate much higher than White Louisianans. You must know high-blood pressure (or rather, that Black people suffer from the illness at higher rates than White people) is merely a symptom of a far more menacing disease.

That brings us to our second point. With all due respect, Gov. Edwards, 400 years of racism is not a trend. But just in case you actually believe that or remain insistent on investigating this “trend”, allow us to save you some time and money. The reason is racism— historic, systemic and institutional racism, the good old-fashioned kind.

And with that out of the way, we think that your time, resources and influence would be better spent directing the state’s Workforce Commission to administer the pandemic unemployment programs created by CARES Act without unnecessary and burdensome restrictions because Louisianans of all races are hurting economically from the fallout from this crisis instead of searching for an answer that we already have. This is especially vital for Black Louisianans because they are disproportionately impacted by the unemployment hike caused by COVID-19 as they count heavily among the tourism-related workers in restaurants, hotels and gig workers, along with the many employees of small Black-owned businesses. And they still need to support their families in the midst of this crisis.

No Surprises

That we are 70 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths in the state should come as no surprise. Black Americans, including those of us that live in this state, are more defenseless against every societal ill America has to offer. It starts the minute we enter the world—literally, from birth. In 1968, Black infants were about 1.9 times as likely to die as White infants. Today, the rate is 2.3 times higher for African Americans.

So we cannot in good conscience sit back and allow anyone to suggest that mere changes to diets and lifestyle choices would have made this situation entirely different or better for Blacks in the state and nation. High blood pressure and diabetes are not the reasons COVID-19 is hitting Black communities hard. To attribute our susceptibility to COVID-19 to a handful of chronic diseases misses both the point along with opportunities to dissect the detrimental impact institutional racism has had in our nation, to learn lessons and to change course.

We already know the stats. We have repeated them incessantly in the pages of The New Orleans Tribune for 35 years to be exact. But we are always happy to remind. African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as Whites. Even with the ACA (Obamacare) and the Medicaid expansion, we are still uninsured at higher rates than White Americans and more likely to work jobs where health insurance is not offered, while earning too much to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford private insurance. In 2017 the Black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, but it is still roughly twice the White unemployment rate. The typical Black family had only $2,467 in wealth in 1963. And while today that figure is about six times larger ($17,409), wealth for White families dwarfs it. In 2016, the median African American family had only 10.2 percent of the wealth of the median White family ($17,409 versus $171,000).

All of those statistics and countless others are pieces of the puzzle that point to the reason COVID-19 has hit our communities so hard. We know the reason is racism. But knowing is hardly half the battle. We simply cannot stop there.

Glenn Ellis, a medical ethicist, researcher, lecturer and president of Strategies for Well-Being, a global consultancy that specializes in health equity and advocacy, says the fallout from COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black people offers an opportunity to determine how we will prevent this from happening again.

“What this virus is doing is clearly demonstrating how institutional racism has affected Black lives in America,” Ellis told The New Orleans Tribune. “And it is singling out the healthcare system to show how we are at a disadvantage. We can start with the method used to tell people to seek diagnosis and testing for COVID-19. They said to contact your primary care physician. Don’t go to the hospital. Don’t go to the emergency room. Many Black people don’t have primary care physicians. Even with Medicaid and Obamacare, they go to community clinics or community medical centers, where they see rotating physicians.”

The fact that African Americans are less likely to use primary care physicians as their source of healthcare is not an obscure bit of information. According to a 2016 study published in a National Institute of Health study—whether the reason is mistrust, lack of access or socio-economic status/ability—Black Americans go to private physicians office for care at only two-thirds the rate of White Americans. Now if the National Institute of Health already knows this, someone somewhere had to have known that directing Americans to call their primary care physicians if they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms would leave many Black Americans with no one to call.

As Ellis contends, the very fact that this reality was not considered when crafting and delivering the message that primary care physicians were the frontline for COVID-19 care at the very least indicated a lack of understanding for what it means to be Black in America. At worst, it was a blatant disregard for Blacks in America and a sign of institutional racism.

Ellis continues, “So if you are telling people not to go to the hospital, not to go to the emergency, but to call their primary care physician, who are you talking to? They are not even talking to me because they don’t understand the realities of my culture? And that allows a viral infection to continue to spread. We were allowed to go much longer without taking precautions. Without any way to deny it, you have to look at the fact that racism (causes detriment to) the wellbeing of Blacks in America.”

We’ve Been Here Before

It would be one thing if COVID-19 was the first time the impact of racism in America was exposed in such a raw and jarring manner. But it’s not.

Didn’t we learn this lesson nearly 15 years ago during Hurricane Katrina? Didn’t the storm shine a light on how the deep socio-economic disparities fueled by systemic racism created two New Orleans—one that was overwhelmingly Black and unable to respond to the storm’s threat. Haven’t we been here before? Then, why do we find ourselves in this disgustingly familiar place? Better still, what do we about it?”

Ellis has a thought.

“Now again for the second time in recent years, this country has been given a chance to decide who it wants to be. We have a chance to say, No, we don’t want to be a nation where an entire segment of our population is disenfranchised because of racism. And if the nation won’t do it as a whole, the Black folk we need to get serious. We have to look at our consumption patterns,” he says, specifically referencing how and where Black Americans receive news and information.”

He continues, “We have to get strict and do it across the board in all areas—how we spend our money and how we vote. We really have to put more scrutiny on and demand more accountability from the people we vote for. Either we are going to do it together as a country or we have to come together as Black people and say ‘we’re not going to allow our communities and our people to die like this again’. We don’t have the luxury to be sitting around, waiting on somebody to save us.”

Be sure to pick-up the upcoming April edition of The New Orleans Tribune for more of this analysis.

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