The Black Plague

tags: African American history, discrimination, Healthcare, coronavirus

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.” She is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.


Since emancipation, racism has underwritten black economic hardship. That hardship is expressed through the concentration of African-Americans in low-wage jobs—many of which are now ironically designated “essential.” According to a report in the Times, Annie Grant, a fifty-five-year-old black woman who worked at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia, said that she was suffering from fevers and chills, and she told her children that she was ordered to return to work despite exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Earlier this month, she died from covid-19. Two more workers at the plant have died, and others have complained about the lack of protective equipment and the difficulty of social distancing there, but Tyson has kept it open. (A spokesperson for Tyson Foods has said that the company has instituted safeguards for employees, including “an adequate supply of protective face coverings for production workers.”) When Vice-President Mike Pence spoke about the role of low-wage, essential work amid a widening outbreak in food-processing plants, he said, “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America, and we need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.”

The intersecting threats of hunger, eviction, and unemployment drive poor and working-class African-Americans toward the possibility of infection. Fewer than twenty per cent of African-Americans have jobs that allow them to work at home. Black workers are concentrated in public-facing jobs, working in mass transit, home health care, retail, and service, where social distancing is virtually impossible. And then there is the concentration of African-Americans in institutions where social distancing is impossible, including prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. African-Americans make up the majority of the incarcerated and the homeless. Forty-six per cent of African-Americans perceive covid-19 as a “major threat” to their health, and yet race and class combine to put black people in danger. These numbers are the crisis wrapped inside of the pandemic.

Poverty, in turn, reinforces ideological assumptions about race. When working-class black neighborhoods have high rates of substandard housing and poor maintenance, and black communities suffer from poor diets and widespread obesity, these characteristics are conflated with race. Racializing poverty helps to distract from the systemic factors at the foundation of both racial and economic inequality. Instead, there is an overabundance of attention placed on the diagnosis and repair of supposedly damaged African-Americans. On April 10th, Trump’s Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, who is black, instructed African-American and Latino communities to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs during the pandemic. In a familiar paternalistic ode, Adams advised, “We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your big mama. Do it for your pop-pop.” He added, “We need you to step up.”

These remarks were a reminder of how the focus on the comorbidities accompanying covid-19, such as diabetes and hypertension, can be easily transformed into discussions about the dietary and exercise habits of the black working class. But that is an irresponsibly one-sided discussion, one that ignores the comorbidities of food deserts, the diminishing returns of food stamps, and the depression and alienation that blanket poor and working-class black neighborhoods. It is not the absence of willpower that is fuelling the pandemic’s deadly effects in black communities. And the disproportionate impact of the virus is not caused by a language barrier requiring that African-Americans be spoken to with “targeted language,” as Adams later explained.


Read entire article at The New Yorker

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