George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is one of the few films of its kind that not only doesn’t kill the token black character first, but makes him the protagonist. Still, after surviving the flesh-eating undead for nearly two hours, the hero dies at the end. I first saw the film when I was a teenager. It was shortly after the young actor who played Ben, Duane Jones, died of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was only 51.
African Americans are quite used to seeing our own die early, whether in real life or the movies. Now as the world lives out its own horror story with the coronavirus pandemic, the one constant is black death. This crisis is reacquainting the rest of America with our conspicuous morbidity.
COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting African Americans, and that is a truth that not even this president and vice president could dodge. Their nods to the inescapable reality this week were better than the alternative, certainly, but still — didn’t move me at all. Not just because they haven’t proposed solutions to address the problem, but also because they have run an administration flush with racist policies and rhetoric. They’re not just complicit, but accelerants, in the conditions that made black people more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus to begin with.
Donald Trump, speaking during Tuesday’s coronavirus task force briefing about the alarming infection and death rates for African Americans suffering from COVID-19, sounded genuinely bewildered about all this. “It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s been disproportional. They’re getting hit very, very hard.” Mike Pence followed up on Wednesday, telling reporters “the surgeon general and others on the White House team, we’ll be speaking with leaders in the African American community.”
I wonder what they will discuss. Will Pence want to talk about the loophole in the relief bill to allow many employers to avoid paying paid leave — particularly in the service industry, which heavily employs black and Latino people in jobs that can’t be done from home? Perhaps the president’s refusal to open the Affordable Care Act’s Healthcare.gov for a special enrollment period during a time when an estimated 13% of the American workforce is now jobless? Or how about the HUD proposal to relax an Obama-era rule addressing bias in housing?
As the numbers trickle in from various localities tracking the racial breakdown of coronavirus victims, we are now seeing many headlines repeating what ProPublica published nearly a week ago: “Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate.” The Associated Press reported in its national analysis that 42% of United States fatalities were African American, double the percentage of black representation in the population covered by the analysis.
In recent days, we have seen racially disproportionate rates of infection and fatalities in heavily black cities such as New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Los Angeles County, this week, became the first in California to publish similar data. New Orleans itself doesn’t have a racial breakdown, but ProPublica reported that 40% of Louisiana’s coronavirus deaths have happened in the majority-black Orleans Parish. More than 70 percent of Mississippi’s COVID-19 deaths are black. Less than 30% of the total population of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County is black, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Washington Post reported that, as of Monday, they have accounted for 73% of its toll. Latino and indigenous Americans are also suffering inordinately in areas where they are more heavily populated, but the emerging reality of black death during this pandemic has very quickly become a national area of focus.
Pence on Thursday mentioned that the White House asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin gathering nationwide information on African American death rates. That’s a welcome, if overdue, first step — especially since to this point, there had been no federal government entity tracking infections and deaths by race. Back on March 27, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both of Massachusetts, sent a letter urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to have his department and its sub-agencies “monitor and address racial disparities in our nation’s response.” Perhaps those African American leaders who Pence will meet with can ask why we didn’t see the administration announce any until headlines about black death buried them.
That we are this deep into the pandemic without such a count should be part of the eventual accounting of this administration’s abysmal handling of the crisis. It had plenty of warning, one that came much earlier than intelligence agencies began tracking the disease last fall. The White House did nothing without being prodded, and acted inadequately even then.
We’re just talking about the count. None of the policies have changed. Trump just sent those families the equivalent of $1,200 and a mule, and more or less washed his hands of them.
It is tempting to indulge in conspiratorial thinking here. We still have a white-nationalist president directing the government’s response to this crisis, and he hasn’t shown that he cares about whether black people survive in his America.
And if we need validation of our paranoia, black people need only look to history for examples of government-orchestrated endangerment of our lives, ranging from COINTELPRO to the Tuskegee Experiment. (The unfortunate consequence, some of which we are seeing now with the pandemic, is that too many in black communitiesare taught to mistrust doctors, and thus don’t seek regular medical care.)
But as Damon Young writes, we need to include redlining, voter suppression, and gentrification among those factors. But those problems predate Trump, even though he and his underlings have worked consciously to exacerbate racial gaps in wealth and advantage. The issue is the lack of solutions. We have, in essence, lost four years to a federal government that has worsened America’s enduring institutional flaws, reinforcing policies that have ghettoized black Americans into areas that lower our life expectancies.
Pence referenced the “historic challenges in the health care” of African American communities without hinting at solutions. The implication is that the comorbidities that exist in those communities are somehow permanent, or even worse, inherent to our genetics. The vice president can urge black folks to “now more than ever, practice the guidelines” of physical isolations as recommended by the White House and CDC. But it is difficult to take him seriously when the president tells tens of millions of Americans who are uninsured that they cannot sign up for Obamacare during a pandemic, because he no likey the black president.
If our federal and state governments are allowed to ignore the systemic forces that led to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on black Americans, they will continue planting the seeds in the soil for a false narrative, similar to those conservatives spread about “black-on-black” crime — or about LGBTQ communities about HIV and AIDS, another pandemic that has disproportionately struck black victims since it first began to spread.
Dr. Anthony Fauci called out that kind of disparagement during Tuesday’s briefing, after Trump departed early. The government’s top expert on infectious diseases appears to be, thus far, the only administration official willing to attempt to contextualize this crisis properly. Noting that the pandemic is shining “a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society,” Fauci noted that during the period of time when HIV and AIDS emerged, “there was extraordinary stigma, particularly against the gay community. And it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to this outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism that I think that changed some of the stigma against the gay community.
“I see a similarity here because health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” Fauci added. “It’s not that they’re getting infected more often, it’s that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions, the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity, the asthma, those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give them a higher death rate.”
I was born in a major city, living in a heavily black neighborhood, with asthma — one of the “underlying conditions” Fauci listed. I didn’t inherit it from either of my parents. Our surroundings often shape our futures: Much like urban pollution and asthma, the higher complication rate from diabetes correlates with food insecurity. Added to that medical danger is the possibility of discrimination when we actually heed government guidelines about covering our faces in public. Two black men in Wood River, Illinois claimed in a video that a police officer in a Walmart followed them and told them that they weren’t permitted in the store while wearing their surgical masks. Another man told the Washington Post that he wears “pink, lime green, Carolina blue” bandannas to lessen the chance of being profiled as a gang member or criminal.
But Fauci’s point belies the heavily propagated idea that this coronavirus is an “equalizer,” somehow indiscriminate in its savagery. That misconception speaks to a particularly egregious American lie, one co-signed through our enslaved ancestors’ indoctrination into Christian religion: African Americans can only achieve equality in death.
Just as this “equalizer” notion is catnip for oblivious white liberals, it is all too convenient for this administration to ignore their role in exacerbating those conditions. The racist things that this president says matter, for they can engender harassment and violence —— but it is the policies promoted by the Republican Party and this president that have steadily made it more difficult for black families to endure and survive this pandemic. Democrats, some of whom share blame in this regard, aren’t shouting from the rooftops to save the lives of their most loyal voting bloc. Thus far, they have been much too quiet.
Perhaps more than any other obstacle, racism has stood in the way of the United States building the very safety net that people of every color and creed need now more than ever. Whether or not those who oppose things like universal health care are wittingly doing so, they’re advocating goals that favor wealthy Americans — at the expense of everyone else. A lot of people who voted for Trump and will do so again are going to find themselves suffering. But such are the wages of whiteness, of securing the false sense of superiority that Trump promises to his flock.
Yes, we tend to be the first to die in a horror story, whether that be a movie or America. But we are seeing this extremely dangerous disease behave much like racism. It may get black and brown first, but the monster will ultimately kill us all.