COVID-19 and the Pervasive Brutality of Institutionalized Racism

We are bracing ourselves for what could be the worst two weeks of suffering and death from COVID-19. As the infection rate climbs in parts of the country and the death toll mounts – the national numbers of confirmed cases and virus-related deaths according to the CDC as of Friday, April 10, stood at 459,165 and 16,570 respectively – news reports confirm daily that the disease is claiming African Americans in disproportionate numbers. Will this renew and strengthen a conviction among white people that BLACK LIVES MATTER MORE THAN EVER?

We shall see.

Meanwhile, as the national news frightens us about the awful toll COVID-19 is taking in cities like New York City, New Orleans and Chicago, it also feels scary here in Greensboro, North Carolina, the third largest city in the state. For one thing, many of us really don’t know what’s going on because local media has been cut to the bone and falls way short of its mission of informing the public. There is so little of substance in print, and much of what we find on TV glides through complex stories as a sudden gust of wind sweeps across flat ground and is gone.

So if you’re someone like me who reads The New York Times daily – no rap if you don’t given how it avoids much that questions the status quo – you might have read a front-page story on Wednesday, April 8, about “disproportionately high” infection and mortality rates among African Americans caused by COVID-19. The report emphasized that data was “preliminary” because most cities and states have not been analyzing confirmed cases and deaths along racial lines. This will change as the virus spreads. Yet the evidence we have now points to an unavoidable conclusion. COVID-19 will prove more deadly for African Americans than their white counterparts. Even the Times admits this is likely, given what it calls “longstanding structural inequalities” – in other words, institutionalized racism.

The story focused on Chicago, where African Americans make up less than a third of the population, yet they account for over half of the city’s residents who tested positive for COVID-19 and 72 percent of virus-related fatalities. “Those numbers take your breath away,” said Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first black woman mayor. One of these named LeShawn Levi believes she was exposed to COVID-19 by riding the bus every day to work, at a hospital where she is employed as a medical assistant. Levi, 45, who has asthma and high blood pressure, could not be certain how she contracted the virus. It could have happened at work, at the grocery store, or from food prepared by others. “I’m just not sure,” she said, amplifying that the necessities of working, shopping and eating for a person like her who cannot work at home, put her in harm’s way.

The same Times story noted that data from both North Carolina and South Carolina “reported a ratio of black residents to white residents who have tested positive for the virus that well exceeds the general population ratio.” It did ask George Dunlop, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, which includes Charlotte, NC, the largest city in the state with more than 850,000 residents, what he thought of the data. Dunlop was “skeptical” as the Times wrote. For sure, African Americans were overrepresented in the number of tests that were positive, but Dunlop attributed this to a higher rate of testing in Charlotte, where African Americans make up 35.1 percent of the city’s population. Nevertheless, the Times also quoted the state’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCHHS), who made no such excuse. The disproportionality was due to “disparities aligned with historic trends.” “This current crisis lays out what we have known for a long time, which is that your ZIP code is often a determinant of your health outcome,” Cohen said.

Here in Greensboro, we have no statistics for the city to date. The state’s HHS Dashboard put the numbers for Guilford County, of which Greensboro is the county seat, at 127 confirmed cases and nine fatalities as of Friday, April 10. Hopefully, county and city governments will do better at breaking down the numbers in order to develop effective strategies to mitigate the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the public needs to know more about key matters. What are elected officials doing each day to make us safer? What are they discussing among themselves that we need to know? How are they arriving at decisions? How are local hospitals and staff handling the crisis? What are we doing as a city to test more people? How are they planning our recovery from all this? What socio-economic-political challenges will they face? And what will be the consequences for us, individually and collectively?

All this requires a strong local media that we don’t have. Is it too much to hope that we would have a daily paper that is locally and perhaps even cooperatively owned? After all, the corporate media is informing us that everything will change as a result of COVID-19. Why not for the best? Why not have our own daily newspaper in Greensboro?

Three Perspectives

Earlier in the week, I spoke by phone with two city councilwomen, Sharon Hightower and Dr. Goldie Wells, whose districts represent all of East Greensboro, almost wholly African American, and the Rev. Steve Allen, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, which is located in Hightower’s district. I sensed a deep concern from all three about what they see happening in the moment. Hightower, who represents District 1, highlighted an apparent disregard for social distancing, especially among younger folks. “We’re very concerned about the stay-at-home order. We want people to follow it,” she said, speaking for the council as a whole. But, she added: “My younger group is not taking it as seriously as our more seasoned citizens.” It’s their sense of youth and invincibility, she thought. “I don’t feel the virus in the air. It can’t be happening,” she said, aptly describing their nonchalance. I mentioned how this reminded me of my students at NCA&TSU during the height of the AIDS crisis years back, some who conveyed equally disturbing views. I recalled how one of my male students proudly informed me and his classmates that he “could just look at a woman and know she didn’t have it.”

Dr. Goldie Wells

Sharon Hightower
Rev. Steve Allen

I also asked Hightower what she wished she could see more of in her district. She said her first and greatest concern was access to food, especially for children and the elderly. “We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to address it, later than sooner I’m afraid.” Still, she returned to what was most important now. She wants her “community” to follow the guidelines set by the city and county to stay home and practice social distancing when venturing out for essentials.

The next day, I asked Dr. Wells if she thought City Council was showing the kind of leadership required to help her constituents in District 2, and for people on the east side in general. “I would say yes,” she replied carefully, but then quickly added that long-held “desires” as she put it shared by both City Council and her constituents in the district have not been “fully satisfied” given what she cautiously termed “certain restrictions.” At the same time, she said, “the pandemic has caused us to look at some facts that have always been there.” She listed them: food insufficiency, lack of jobs, lack of transportation, lack of adequate housing, safety. “We have crime here,” she said. I asked if she thought there was more of it since COVID-19 shuttered people in their homes and with loss of employment. This could be true, she noted, due to the increase in stress and anxiety and pointed to the rise in domestic abuse cases. We talked briefly about the News & Record story on March 24, which reported a 10 percent increase in the number of calls made to Greensboro police compared to a year ago at this time.

Later that afternoon, I phoned Rev. Allen to ask him what he thought about the crisis and its impact on his congregation, the community and local government’s response. “I’ll give them credit for taking the right steps,” he said of country and city officials. But he pivoted quickly to “the failure of local media,” and especially the TV outlets, who “won’t come into the black community” unless there are “bad” things to report. “We have good stories at our church,” noting that Channel 8 and Spectrum will come out. “But never News 2,” he said of WFMY, one of the three main local network stations in Greensboro and based on Phillips Avenue in District 2.

Allen went to the heart of the matter politically. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated “the problem of being poor in America.” The failure of the health care system is abundantly clear. When poor people get sick, the only place they can go is to the hospital. Allen said he’s been to Moses Cone Hospital and found himself waiting with the poor. “You have to sit seven or 8-10 hours before you’re treated.” Cone is “financially strong” but not doing the job for many patients. “I’ve seen people die because they were sent home and then they die.” He blamed insurance companies for driving hospitals toward such practices. As for President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen expressed bewilderment and frustration. “Trump calls it a hoax and the public is still okay with it. This is like the Twilight Zone,” referring to the old TV program he and I watched long ago when we were adolescents.

What now, friends?

Is there any doubt that COVID-19 puts African Americans at even greater risk? Will this virus become another nail in a coffin designed, constructed and adorned by white supremacists since the end of Reconstruction and now delivered by the fascist white supremacists who run much of the federal government and more than half of the state legislatures across the country?

On top of unemployment, under-employment, and historic disparities in housing, access to food, health insurance, medical care and public education, African Americans are much more vulnerable to this virus for any number of additional reasons; for example, their longstanding battles with certain diseases like diabetes, which took the life of my young son-in-law, Ronnie Ellison, leaving my grandson Jordan, 13, at a time in his life when he most needs his dad.

As for the well-being of our children and grandchildren, I and many others are relieved to learn that the City of Greensboro just closed all playgrounds, basketball courts, skate parks and bathrooms at all city parks, gardens and lakes.

Nevertheless, I see many young African Americans clerking and stocking shelves in the local grocery stores or driving Amazon delivery vans. Then there are those less visible who constitute a small army of servers and cooks in the fast food industry who must work in close quarters so they can feed those of us who will not cook for ourselves, or maybe won’t or can’t because it’s cheaper to eat a processed burger and fatty fries with a 16oz drink of flavored sugar water to top it off. How about the thousands of African Americans and Latinos who labor in the food processing plants throughout the Carolinas, terrible workplaces long before COVID-19? How much are these workers making so they and their families can eat? Isn’t this icing on the cake when we talk about institutionalized racism?

The main thing here is that African Americans still employed are not doing so from “the luxury of working from home” as Wednesday’s New York Times put it. Here is the enduring disparity that will only worsen with the advance of the virus, especially if Trump & Co. reopens the economy prematurely because Wall Street decided it was time to make more profits based on what some historians and writers now call “disaster capitalism.” If the working class throughout this country will be sucked dry and more of it left to die, we know who goes first.

Here’s something else to consider about COVID-19, African Americans, and the need for universal health care. With Bernie Sanders now out of the running for president, Joe Biden oddly resembles Michael Dukakis, the incredibly weak and ultimately failed presidential hopeful of the Democratic Party in 1988. That was the same year Jesse Jackson brought millions of new voters into the party and made him a viable candidate in his own right. In return for his efforts, Jackson was promised the position of “drug czar” in a Dukakis administration. An example of institutionalized racism long before the term became familiar?

“It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under,” as Grandmaster Flash used to warn us, apparently to little or no avail.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.