As a journalist, I pride myself on staying free of biases and emotional reactions, allowing readers to arrive at their own conclusions. As an industrial engineer with research experience in nuclear chemistry, I strive to let data tell the story. As an activist, I fight for marginalized communities to enjoy equitable participation in our democracy, with a strong emphasis on the issues affecting Black men. That last quest has consistently proven the most challenging — not because of the merits of such work, but the responses I get. The “but what about [insert demographic here]?” The cries of racism. The resistance to the idea that in trying times, the Black community, and Black men in particular, have historically suffered most acutely.
Today, those responses have made my heart and soul heavy. Because if we don’t ring the alarm, if we don’t get a proper sense of what’s roaring toward us, then when we come out on the other side of this pandemic we will find that while Covid-19 has killed without compassion or remorse, it will have killed more Black men — both per capita and in soul-crushing absolute numbers — than any other group.
There’s a way to avoid that outcome. But to do so, we first need to visit Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941, where two different origin stories were running in parallel.
For the “Tuskegee Experiment,” which had begun a few years prior, investigators from the United States Public Health Service had recruited 600 impoverished African American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama, with the promise of free health care from the federal government. The study’s true purpose, though, was to observe untreated syphilis — which nearly two-thirds of the men had in latent form. The men were told that the study was only going to last six months; it lasted 40 years. None of the men were told that they had the disease, and none were treated even as penicillin’s effectiveness became known. Most troubling, in order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care as the men died, went blind, or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis. The ethical atrocity would go on to sow deep distrust among Black men of the medical community.
Also in Tuskegee in 1941: the first class of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. While Black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated during World War II, these pilots went on to be one of the Air Force’s most successful and most-decorated escort groups. Flying in the European theater, they garnered hundreds of valor medals, including eight Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars — then returned home to a country that still refused to grant them rights equal to those of their White neighbors.
Even the GI Bill, which established hospitals, made low-interest mortgages available to veterans, and granted stipends covering college or trade school tuition and expenses for veterans, distributed such benefits inequitably. Whether segregation in schools, redlining in neighborhoods, White-run financial institutions refusing to approve home loans, or simply the military dishonorably discharging hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers and thus making them ineligible for benefits, the GI Bill’s implementation ended up creating (or increasing) racial gaps in wealth, education, housing, and civil rights.
All of those gaps persist today, as does another that proves particularly chilling in the face of Covid-19: a health gap. Distrust of the medical establishment, socioeconomic factors that push poorer communities to worse dietary habits, and environmental factors that have driven disproportionate rates of diabetes and juvenile asthma in majority-Black cities like Detroit — not to mention well-established correlations between income and health — have created generational health disparities between Black and White Americans.
And those disparities just so happen to lead to the very conditions that appear to put Covid-19 patients at increased risk: heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. (Among all minority groups, Black men suffer from the highest overall death rate for all three of those conditions.)
If you need to see how this plays out, look to Milwaukee. Working from data furnished by Milwaukee County, ProPublica found that in the space of a single week, Milwaukee went from having one case to nearly 40. Most of the sick were middle-aged African American men. By week two, the city had over 350 cases. As of now, there are more than 945 cases countywide, with the bulk in the city of Milwaukee, where the population is 39% Black. About half of the county’s cases have been African American — as have been the vast majority of its deaths.
Yet, as ProPublica pointed out, Milwaukee County is one of very few places in the country that tracks its Covid-19 cases by race as well as age and gender. Most states and cities don’t. Neither does the federal government.
That needs to end. Last week, five members of Congress — including Ayanna Pressley, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren — wrote a letter to U.S Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling for “comprehensive demographic data on the racial and ethnic characteristics of people who are tested or treated for Covid-19.” Just yesterday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law did the same:
This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps.