There is probably no individual or organization that encourages personal responsibility and the need for those of us in the Black community to save ourselves more than we do here at The New Orleans Tribune. Our mantra: “We must save ourselves because no one else will.”
Of course, Black Americans . . . all Americans for that matter, should watch what we eat. We should not smoke or drink too much. We should exercise more. We should take seriously and, with the help of healthcare professionals, better manage chronic illnesses. We should make regular doctor visits.
We must do better as individuals, families, and communities when it comes to taking care of our bodies. The disparate vulnerability of Black Louisianans to the coronavirus has made that clear. We comprise 70 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in a state where we are only a little more 32 percent of the population. And with that fact, perhaps it is a natural inclination, perhaps, to look at the Black community, point a finger and say that we must be doing something wrong, something that makes us more susceptible to the disease. And it is true. There are things we have done (or have not done) that have resulted in this uneven impact. It’s okay to talk about those things, especially if everyone else, especially our leaders and policymakers, are ready to talk about the things that have been done to Black people in America over the last 400 years, how those things have undermined our community and left us vulnerable to COVID-19 and so much more.
More importantly, we need leaders to develop a plan to address the issues that harm our communities from a policy standpoint.
That is why it was disappointing to hear Gov. John Edwards (and others, including those within our own community) go on and on about the lifestyle behaviors that contribute to Black folk being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 without the proper context. The reason Black people are dying from coronavirus at a disproportionate rate does not begin and end with bad habits or existing chronic illnesses that afflict our community at higher rates than others. It begins with structural racism.
It is true, coronavirus does not see race or class. But our nation and its healthcare system does. And that is the problem we need our leaders addressing substantially more than we need to be lectured by any of them about the amount of salt someone shakes on their meal.
It is disrespectful to go on and on about how Black people need to do a better job of seeking care from primary care doctors without talking about the institutional racism that helps explain why they don’t.
According to studies, Black Americans seek their healthcare from primary care physicians at a rate of about two-thirds that of White Americans. And unless we are ready to talk about a lack of cultural competency among many healthcare professionals, along with how a lack of access and money, the understandable and inherent distrust many Black Americans have for the established medical system that stems or the fact that only four percent of the nation’s practicing physicians are Black, then we are wasting our time. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis is Black Males” went on for 40 years until 1972; and dark events like it, along with similar issues with this country’s medical establishment, are major reasons Black Americans don’t trust the established medical system. It’s true many Black people don’t go to the doctor as often as they should. Can you blame them? Better still, what can you do to change this reality?
Of course, we know there are things individuals must do to improve his or her own quality of life. But let’s put this thing in perspective. Historic and even current government-sanctioned policies that were and are racist at their core have shaped what it means to be Black in America in every way possible. So as our leaders try desperately to unpack the data, we believe too much energy has been spent pointing fingers at Black people for the decisions they make or don’t make while not nearly enough attention is given to circumstances that drive those decisions for 400 years.
The way some folks talk about the disparate impact of the virus on the Black community, including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams whose “do it for your Abuela . . . do it for Big Mama” plea to Black and brown Americans to not drink and to not smoke, is pejorative, superficial and utterly ignores the fact that 400 years of structural racism has manifested into every negative social determinant that impacts Black America. And if the nation’s surgeon general, who also happens to be a Black man, can’t dig any deeper than that to talk about not only habits that need to change, but government policies and healthcare industry practices that need to be transformed as well, then we are in trouble.
We were unnerved by Gov. Edwards, when, during his 1 p.m. address Friday (April 10), he castigated the very community being hit hardest by this disease; then, almost as if it were an afterthought, he briefly mentioned something about “figuring out” the social determinants that play a role in the disparate impact COVID-19 is having on Black people in Louisiana and “see what we can do to address them.”
What is there to figure out?
Slavery. Domestic Terrorism. Jim Crow. Segregation. Redlining. Economic Exclusion. Historically Inequitable Treatment in the Education, Healthcare, Housing, and Criminal Justice systems. Are those enough social determinants for y’all?
And let’s be abundantly clear, we are not talking about ancient history. We are talking about a relatively young nation’s recent past that continues and current problems that exist because every one of this nation’s systems and institutions are built on a foundation of racism.
Yes, we must talk about poor diets, but let’s dare do that without mentioning that our city is littered with communities that are in fact food deserts forcing people to travel miles from home for fresh offerings or settle for the unhealthy options that are just up the block. How could anyone with even an ounce of decency talk about poor eating habits of a community and not talk about how areas in cities such as New Orleans and others like it across the country are void of healthy choices TODAY because of redlining policies that date back to the 40s, 50s, and 60s—an actual program created and sanctioned by the federal government to keep banks from backing loans to developers to build and sell homes in Black neighborhoods, which in turn kept Blacks from building wealth and kept business interests from opening groceries or other viable institutions to serve people they intentionally left trapped there. Today, groceries, banks, healthcare facilities, restaurants and the like won’t even consider many of these areas of our communities unless they are being gentrified.
As the state turns it’s attention to residents in the River Parishes, we have to talk about environmental racism. We hope that our leaders are not surprised because St. John, St. James and parishes that stretch along the Mississippi River, are getting hit hard now by coronavirus. As the number of cases in these areas grows, our leaders should not talk about the rate of diabetes or hypertension in these communities without mentioning the inequitable manner in which Black people in these communities suffer from cancer and respiratory illnesses because of the chemical plants that have been allowed to grow unchecked in their backyards.
We know it will be easier to talk about how residents along Cancer Alley need to exercise more. That way you don’t have to explain why the petrochemical plants are still allowed to flourish there despite their proximity to and detrimental impact on the communities of color. But we didn’t elect you to take the easy way out. Greed and environmental racism were already killing the people of these communities. COVID-19 is not helping. And neither will a brisk walk.
We could go on and on about every social determinant and point to historical or current policies and practices that directly impact the state of Black America today. We have been writing about this stuff for 35 years.
But right now, we just need y’all to stop it. Stop victim-blaming and do something.
For our part, we do encourage our brothers and sisters to step up to the challenge and to take as much control over their lives as they possibly can. Gov. Edwards is right about one thing—everyone needs to do his part. Everyone needs to do what they are supposed to do.
So, let us pray.
God grant us the courage to change the things we can and to accept personal responsibility for our individual lives.
Grant us the boldness to demand that our leaders fix the things they are supposed to fix, deliver services and create policies that close education, healthcare, housing, income and wealth gaps because that is what we elected them to do. And grant them the humility to either do their jobs or go home and be quiet.
Oh yeah, God, also grant them the wisdom not to blame the victims of 400 years of racism in America for not being able to handle this deadly virus as well as others who have enjoyed a 250-year head start in wealth, access, equity and opportunity in every way.