Would the disproportionate impact on black and brown communities lead to increased blame, stigmatization and a general willingness to move on because the threat was thought to be circulating in some distant orbit?
Or, would the disproportionate impact inspire a swell of empathy, resources, messaging and emergency measures targeted at black and brown areas in the path of the pandemic, with Americans at the same time embracing the notion of a shared threat?
It will take us years to fully answer those questions, but evidence is growing that this country may have already chosen the first path. It is disappointing but not shocking. America has a long history of being impervious to black pain.
Political scientist Evan Lieberman knew that when he framed the choice in a social science journal last week. He’s an MIT professor who has studied the public response to AIDS and HIV based on ethnic and racial factors. He suspected that collecting disaggregated racial data on covid-19 could have unintended consequences. Yes, it would help identify areas of vulnerability or need. But when that vulnerability was then attached to a specific racial or ethnic category, he feared, it could harm the very group the data collection was supposed to help.
“It is not difficult to imagine that if covid-19 comes to be understood as a ‘Black’ epidemic,” he wrote, “this will create false impressions for many white Americans — in the United States’ racially polarized and effectively segregated society — that the virus is ‘not our problem,’ leading to decreased demand for and compliance with public health directives.”
“Not our problem” is an undercurrent in the largely white reopen-America protests popping up daily around the country. “Not our problem” is the undercurrent when people refuse to wear masks in public. And “not our problem” is the conclusion one cannot help but draw when one studies the calendar and sees that the protests commenced around the same time that the data on racial disparities became a central story line in covid-19 news coverage.
Some will no doubt argue that “not our problem” is a coincidence of timing. Perhaps it is fueled by disassociation: If the viral load is concentrated in nursing homes, meatpacking plants, prisons and black communities, then those who don’t have connections to any of those places are going to feel less threatened and boldly venture out into the world as stay-at-home orders are relaxed.
But I doubt it. Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen recently visited a wealthy area of shops and restaurants in Alpharetta, Ga., where crowds of unworried and unmasked people were “eating, drinking, touching and throwing caution to the wind.” She spoke with two men on the sprawling plaza sipping beer on a sunny day. “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried,” one of the men said.
His friend chimed in, “I know what people are going to say — ‘Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!’ ” And then the friend who noted that he wasn’t worried because of, well … you know … “the demographics” served up a final punctuation: “How do you give up a day like this — really, how?”
The two men were enjoying that beautiful spring day in Georgia — a state where black people make up 83 percent of the coronavirus hospital patients even though they constitute one-third of the population.
We are now in an “us and them” pandemic, with black communities still reeling from the virus and not so much worried about giving up sunny days but watching their health, their family members, their loved ones and breadwinners snatched away by illness.
That’s creating a sense of vertigo and justifiable anger. While individual states and cities have created task forces to interrogate the social determinants and underlying health problems that have led to the racial disparities, the federal response has been AWOL. “Unfortunately, the American population is … very diverse,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar when asked about the United States’ sky-high virus-related death rate on a recent television appearance.
That revealing statement should live in infamy. Azar said he wasn’t faulting minorities who were suffering from life-threatening diseases even before covid-19 arrived, but others are blaming black communities for their fate. A survey conducted by Change Research found that a narrative of personal responsibility led some whites to conclude that underlying issues such as diabetes and hypertension were more related to poor life choices than years of systemic racism that led to failing schools, substandard housing and neighborhoods that lack health care, steady employment or even grocery stores.
We can use words such as “demographics” and “comorbidities” to dance around the subject of race. But we cannot skirt the fact that what is a nuisance for one person is another person’s plague.
“Not my problem” is not the right response.
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