A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

Racism in America is institutional. The nation’s legal, business, civic and social constructs and the policies, practices, programs that give them teeth were designed to disenfranchise, marginalize, and undermine Black Americans and other communities of color. 

The world’s latest crisis, COVID-19, has laid bare just how deep these disparities are and the ways they impact our communities. African Americans across the nation are overrepresented in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. They are hit harder by the economic impact of the pandemic as well.

Here in Louisiana, where Black folk are roughly 33 percent of the population, they are about 60 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths. 

We already knew that when White America catches a cold, we get the pneumonia. Now we know that when the rest of America battles COVID-19, we battle COVID-19 . . . on steroids—with the disease hitting and hurting us much harder.

We’re not sure how many times this needs to be repeated for it to resonate and propel action. But we are tired of talking about it. We want solutions. Here at The New Orleans Tribune, we are always looking for the silver lining. And in the case of COVID-19’s disastrous impact, the silver lining is the lesson that can be learned from the manner in which inequity has shown itself amid this pandemic and how those lessons can be used to reshape the institutions, policies and practices that shape our lives.

To that end, there are three key areas that we say government and business interests along with healthcare systems must give immediate attention and action. This is not an exhaustive list of inequities as there are many others, but these are a start—three of the most pressing issues that require critical attention:

Address healthcare disparities that result in negative outcomes for Black Americans 

Address economic disparities, wage disparities, living wages, and sick leave

Strengthen small and Black-owned businesses, by providing targeted assistance, contract opportunities and capacity building programs

Healthcare Disparities 

As the Centers for Disease Control notes in a report on COVID-19 and race, “The conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play contribute to their health. These conditions, over time, lead to different levels of health risks, needs, and outcomes among some people in certain racial and ethnic minority groups.”

In response to COVID-19, The CDC offers guidance on addressing healthcare disparities that impact outcomes for minority communities. That guidance must become a mandate and it ought to apply generally, not just to COVID-19 response, we say.

Healthcare systems and healthcare providers must implement protocols and quality improvement initiatives, especially in facilities that serve large minority populations, that identify and address the implicit biases that hinder patient-provider interactions and communication. 

They must work with communities and healthcare professional organizations to reduce cultural barriers to care. They must connect patients with community resources that can help older adults and people with underlying conditions adhere to care plans, such as assistance getting extra supplies and medications they need and reminders for them to take their medicines. Poor Americans should not have to choose between this month’s allocation of some needed medicine and this month’s food bill or electric bill. More importantly, the healthcare system is obligated to promote a trusting relationship by encouraging patients to call and ask questions and by teaching healthcare providers to listen to their patients’ concerns, to understand them and to address them professionally and compassionately.

Access to healthcare must be also increased. Cost cannot be a barrier. According to the CDC, compared to Whites, Hispanics are almost three times as likely to be uninsured, and African Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured.  In all age groups, Blacks were more likely than Whites to report not being able to see a doctor in the past year because of cost. Universal healthcare must be a top priority as the 2020 presidential election nears.

Moreover, the nation’s education system from pre-K to college, in conjunction with the entire healthcare system must do more to address the lack of Black doctors. Today, only four percent of the nation’s practicing physicians are African-American. Barriers such as the cost of medical school must be mitigated. And improving educational opportunities at both secondary education and in all institutions of higher learning to prepare African American students for success in medical school must be accomplished. That means that K-12 schools which serve the nation’s most disenfranchised communities must get more support and more resources. According to one study, only 57 percent of Black students have access to the full range of math and science courses necessary for college readiness, compared to 81 percent of Asian American students and 71 percent of white students. 

Additionally, HBCUs must also be strengthened and supported because while they make up only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10 percent of all African American students and produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates, according to the United Negro College Fund. These institutions have been and still are major players in the success of Black college students in America. The resources they receive must reflect their importance to our communities.  

Addressing Economic Inequity 

While essential workers are being lauded for their dedication amid the pandemic, their pay rarely reflects their true value to society. In additions to medical workers, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, fast food and other restaurant employees have remained on the frontlines.

Economic and wage inequity did not begin with COVID-19. The numbers are staggering and longstanding. For example, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as Whites. 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. 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). 

And the racial wealth gap is only fueled by wage inequity, with the biggest pay gap existing for Black women, who account for 30 percent of all female-headed families in the U.S. They have a median income of $18,244 annually, while families headed by white males (no wife present) have a median income of $39,240. And the data indicates that education is no cure-all when it comes to addressing wage gaps. Among full-time, year-round workers, Black women with bachelors’ degrees make only $1,545 more per year than white males who have only completed high school. 

In other words, this issue is systemic, but the answer is simple. Across industries and job classifications, all American workers regardless of race and gender must be paid equitably—the same money for the same job without exception.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated already inequitable wage conditions. Nearly a quarter of employed Hispanic and Black or African American workers are employed in service industry jobs compared to 16 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Hispanic workers account for 17 percent of total employment but constitute 53 percent of agricultural workers; African Americans make up 12 percent of all employed workers, but account for 30 percent of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses.

All American workers need a paid sick leave. The CDC notes that workers without paid sick leave might be more likely to continue to work even when they are sick for any reason, increasing the chances that they can be exposed to or expose others to COVID-19 or the next pandemic disease. 

As businesses struggle, much is also being made of the soaring unemployment numbers. In the best of circumstance, Black America is disparately impacted by unemployment. 

But a new twist to the unemployment issue has emerged because of COVID. There is now concern that businesses may struggle to rehire workers as they reopen because they just will not be able to compete with the enhanced unemployment benefits, bolstered by the $600 per week pandemic unemployment compensation. Businesses lament that they just will not be able to compete with the current unemployment benefits. And state and federal governments have threatened that if businesses report that an employee refuses to return to work, those benefits will be discontinued.

To that we say that leaders should worry far less about whether employees will return to work while enhanced benefits are being paid and concentrate on why some Americans may be faring better on unemployment.

In Louisiana, the full unemployment compensation is $247 a week. Without the $600 weekly boost, that is less than $1000 a month. No one can support a family, pay rent, utilities, buy groceries or meet other financial obligations with $988 a month. It’s nearly impossible to do so with even double that amount. Yet many hard working, low-wage earning families across our city, state and nation are expected to do that every day of the year. Note to Congress, if folk cannot survive off $1000 a month during a pandemic, then what makes you think they can survive off meager wages any other time. 

Too many Americans were not earning the money they needed to support themselves and their families before the crisis. In short, the time for a boost to the federal minimum wage and the need to implement a living wage for all Americans is long overdue.

Strengthening Black Businesses 

According to a report from the McKinsey Institute that was released in April, Black-owned businesses are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Some 40 percent of revenues from Black-owned businesses are in the top five most vulnerable sectors, including retail, leisure, and hospitality. Compared to other businesses nationwide, just 25 percent of revenues are affected, the report says.

To know that many small, Black-owned businesses have been shut out of the PPP program because they don’t have “relationships” with banks is disturbing. Such a scenario should have never been allowed to happen. Too much discretion was left in the hands of banks and bankers, when the program should have specifically targeted the businesses that were most in need of assistance. Since the initial round of PPP was released, a second round has been made available. And while funding targeted to these institutions have increased in the second round of PPP loan, they still pale in comparison to the total PPP dollars loaned to businesses across the country. 

By mid-May, more than 5500 financial institutions have made nearly 4.4 million loans for a total of more than $512 billion in PPP loans, with the average loan size of $166,604. But when the data for Community Development Financial Institutions and Minority Depository Institutions are examined, the inequity is evident. CDFIs and MDSs exist to economically empower America’s underserved and distressed communities—ostensibly the very communities hardest hit by COVID-19. Yet, as of mid-May barely 400 CDFIs and MDIs have dispersed 173,627 PPP loans for a total of about $15.5 billion. In other words, CDFIs and MDIs are only 7.2 percent of institutions making PPP loans. The $15.5 billion in PPP loans represents only three percent of all loans made

 Our leaders are elected to protect us, work for us, fight for us. Moreover, financial institutions must do more to encourage and build these relationships now and in ongoing efforts if they will use them as a requirement to disburse federal dollars meant to shore of these businesses. Without that effort, small Black-owned businesses will never be able to compete with multi-billion dollar corporations and other big businesses.

As New York-based journalist J. Cunningham noted in a recent column, Black business are concerned that they will be decimated without targeted assistance.

“They need grants and loans on a hyper-local level that will help Black business owners with their immediate bills and keep them from having to furlough, fire, or cut the pay of employees.

They also need access to local, state and federal government contracts – and specifically, a “master contract” where the government awards money to a nonprofit, community-based partner, and that entity, in turn, identifies Black businesses to fulfill the contract, according to a white paper from the Black Business Empowerment Committee, a group of business owners, houses of worship and community groups committed to growing and sustaining Black-owned businesses.

And again, these solutions must extend beyond COVID-19. It must become standard policy of government agencies and financial institutions to ensure that Black owned businesses receive targeted attention in programs designed to aid, low-interest loans, and contract opportunities. Government must be committed to administering programs that focus on helping Black-owned business build capacity and competing on a leveled playing field.

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