Junior George Preston wears gloves, a durag and a mask to protect himself from COVID-19 as he steps out into his neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama. Photo Courtesy of George Preston.
“Racial health disparities have been a problem for decades, if not centuries, and nothing’s been done about it,” said Roslyn Satchel, scholar-activist and Communication professor. “I wonder if finally, now that COVID-19 has exposed these huge systemic problems, if one person would just make an effort to do something to stem the tide and change the flow — actually save some lives.”
African Americans only make up 13% of the general population in the United States, but recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 33% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are African American.
These statistics expose the racial inequalities surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly dealing with health, socioeconomic factors and racial profiling. The CDC also found 17.9% of COVID-19 related deaths are among African Americans as of April 14.
In interviews with five experts and 10 students, all expressed that racial disparities during COVID-19 are unfortunate and heartbreaking. But many said it is not surprising considering the health and well-being of Black people have never been a priority in the U.S.
“It’s absolutely disheartening that the Black population is at such a disadvantage, and it just goes to show that something is systematically wrong,” junior Hope Horn said. “It just breaks my heart to know that we [as Black people] are at a disadvantage, and likely, we’re not getting the proper treatment that we deserve.”
From the Beginning — Food and Health
Experts say African Americans have always experienced, and are more likely to have, existing health conditions than the rest of the population.
Thema Bryant-Davis, professor of Psychology at Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, said Black people’s health problems date back to slavery and directly after, having to do with the diet Black people could afford at that time.
“If you read slave narratives, a lot of what was given [for meals] were the leftover parts, and in our creativity, we learned to make meals out of the things that other people did not want to eat,” Bryant-Davis said.
This affects African American diets even today with an ongoing culture of soul food — ethnic food by African Americans including fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, yams, greens, cornbread and so forth.
While soul food may be considered flavorful, it can cause more health problems including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease due to excessive salt and high fat.
Only 46% of the general population in the United States is considered to have high blood pressure, but over 40% of African Americans alone have high blood pressure — and for many, it also develops earlier in life, making it more severe, according to the American Heart Association.
Having existing health conditions including obesity, diabetes and lung disease increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a press conference April 7. “But here again with the crisis, now it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”
Still — Action is Absent
Knowing that Black individuals are suffering more disproportionately compared to white populations, Satchel said she doesn’t understand why nothing has been done.
“I know the research is there. I know that our government knows about racial health disparities,” Satchel said. “I know that these huge, medical industries are aware of how illnesses disproportionately affect Black and brown communities and people.”
However, many argue it’s simply because Black lives are not important to those in power.
“[It] goes back to, unfortunately, chattel slavery because our bodies have been commodified, and when our bodies are commodified, then you can look at it in a number of different ways,” said Eric Wilson, associate dean of Student Affairs, executive director of Spiritual Life Programs and African American scholar-activist. “Whether it’s ‘Oh let’s drain this body and then we’ll dispose of it because it’ll be another one’ or ‘Let’s just give enough care to the body so the body can do what we need it to do.’”
Physicians in 1932 first started using Black men, referred to as “the Negro male,” in experimentation work for the Tuskegee Syphilis study, observing the natural history of untreated syphilis. Researchers, however, failed to inform the participants about the goal of the study, and when penicillin became a known treatment, researchers did not offer it to any of the men.
Many Black Americans today do not trust the health care system as it pertains to their physicians and hospitals, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“There’s a lot of skepticism between the Black community and the medical system,” senior Ikechukwu Egwuonwu said. “For instance, I was actually warned to take ‘organ donor’ off my license.”
Egwuonwu said he doesn’t want first responders to think twice about saving his life because he’s Black, an organ donor and type-O negative.
A National Center for Biotechnology Information study found African Americans’ distrust of physicians is more than just incompetence but rather “perceptions of physician greed and racism expectations,” which contribute to whether African Americans even seek health care at all.
“The type of treatment that [African Americans] get if they are ill [is poor] — if they go to the doctor at all — because there’s also a fear for a lot of African Americans going to the doctor and being used for different studies,” Public Relations Professor Jamila Cupid said.
Even with the growing pandemic of COVID-19, experts say in many cases that Black people are still not believed when they need to get tested and are instead turned away.
“Just look at what’s happening now with COVID — like, if an African American goes in to the doctor [or] calls the doctor, they’re much less prone to get tested than others are,” Cupid said.
Socioeconomic Factors — Social Distancing is a Privilege
In 2018, African Americans made up 13% of the general population, but 20.8% of African Americans fell below the poverty line, according to a Center for American Progress project.
As a result, Black individuals are positioned to take on essential worker jobs and do not have the ability to social distance, which is one of the greatest weapons people have against fighting the coronavirus.
“These are the [vulnerable] folks we’re talking about, and they often don’t have a choice about whether they go to work,” Satchel said. “A stay-at-home order can be put in place one day, and their company or employer will say the next day that they are an essential worker, and therefore, they have to go to work.”
Social distancing only works for those whose jobs are nonessential.
“The practice [of social distancing] itself has disparities, whereby we have those who are privileged who are able to have less exposure, and those who are more vulnerable — and disproportionately, African Americans fall into this group who have more exposure,” said Susan Gooden, dean and public policy professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a American Society for Public Administration webinar April 16.
Additionally, social distancing in African American communities is particularly difficult because of how small and tight-knit the communities are.
“When we’re talking about ‘the projects,’ and we’re talking about what some people like to call ‘the ghetto’ or ‘the hood,’ what we’re talking about is the way in which this society has encamped — entrenched — low-income communities into tight quarters, often in the least advantageous locations,” Satchel said.
Studies show that some African Americans may not want to deal with the health care system at all, yet others may want to get tested but do not have the means or access for a test.
“When this first was picking up momentum in the U.S., you see how some people were able to get testing automatically,” said Olivia Robinson, senior and co-president of the Black Student Association. “Whereas when it came to the general population — or especially people in poor communities — you see questions like, ‘Well, where are the tests?’ [or] ‘Oh, there’s not enough tests — there’s not enough people to administer tests,’ and so I think that definitely played a factor in people being able to access testing.”
The Story Behind the Mask
Another important weapon against fighting the coronavirus is a mask or some type of facial covering. But for Black men in particular, masks may hurt more than they help.
On March 15 in Woodriver, Illinois — one of the states that has the highest COVID-19 African American disparities — a police officer followed two African American men wearing masks into Walmart for no clear reason other than racial profiling, the Washington Post reported.
“You tell us to wear a mask, you tell us how to make the mask if we don’t have medical ones and you literally have politicians on TV with red bandanas, black bandanas, blue bandanas, all bandanas associated with gang culture,” freshman Myles Dennis said. “So when they do it, it’s a, you know, it’s a formality — it’s helping the community — but when someone else does it, it’s ‘Oh no, he can’t do it, he looks like something that we can’t have in our store,’ and he’s, quote, ‘making us feel unsafe.’”
The Washington Post also reported that some Black men do not want to wear a mask at all because it’s too much of a risk coming in contact with law enforcement.
History shows that police are not always on Black people’s side, and Black people have to justify their presence when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, according to The Guardian.
“I’m praying for those [men from Illinois] because I wouldn’t want to leave the house after that,” junior George Preston said. “I really wouldn’t, and I feel every time I get a mask on and I have a durag on — I feel like that’s going to happen.”
Preston is from Mobile, Alabama, and he has also taken steps to try and avoid being racially profiled while wearing a mask during COVID-19. He stopped going for runs around his neighborhood because he constantly thought about how his white neighbors might view him — perhaps as a robber or an alleged thug.
“I literally don’t run around the neighborhood just because I think, you know, they have the right to bear arms — they could literally shoot me,” Preston said.
Preston also has to take extra steps just to appear presentable and not come off as a threat when he wears his mask, durag and AirPods.
“I don’t want to scare them, and the thing is, you don’t feel like a human — you feel like an animal,” Preston said.
While Preston may want to protect himself from COVID-19, he sometimes has to weigh if he should wear a mask or take it off to avoid being racially profiled.
“I have myself taken off the mask when I have gone in to pick up foods from a white establishment just because I looked in and felt like I would be seen as a threat,” Preston said.
But Preston also said that everyone needs to protect themselves at all times.
“We should not, you know, forego our health and safety for people’s preconception,” Preston said.
Preston has dealt with other situations in the past regarding racial profiling and said such scenarios can be traumatizing.
“We’re all human, we’re all going through [this]; you have a mask on, this guy has a mask on; and the reason I’m being kicked out is because of the color of my skin — what does that do to a person’s mental state?” Preston said. “That’s what you have to ask — a pandemic is going on and the thing you are still resting upon is the color of my skin?”
While there is still no cure for COVID-19, experts say there are still steps to take in order to stem the tide and help learn more about the pandemic.
Satchel said even researchers at Pepperdine can set up clinics and try to learn more about these racial health disparities.
“I’m not aware that we’re looking at these important issues of racial health disparities in the sciences,” Satchel said. “Not to say it’s not happening, but I’m not aware of it.”
However, some professors said they believe that, as a Christian University, Pepperdine can take more steps to create change.
“As we think about solutions for those who are disproportionately being affected and recognizing that Pepperdine is a faith-based institution, it’s important to note that African Americans on average report higher religiosity than other racial groups in the country,” Bryant-Davis said.
Not being able to gather for funerals or mourn together has caused the African American community to become more creative during this time.
“We are seeing a lot of innovation within our communities in terms of using online platforms that many of our elders were not used to or accustomed to,” Bryant-Davis said. “But using those to create cultural connections, religious connections, family connections so that even as we’re physically isolated to know that we are not socially or spiritually alone. This is important to recognize that not only do we have vulnerability, but we also have cultural strengths and resources.”
As a nation, Gooden said Americans could provide medical care to all essential workers at no cost, provide hazard pay directly to individuals and continue to shed light on this problem.
“Most important, being able to use our influence both at the macro and the micro level in our families, in our communities or on our colleagues and friends — to be able to call attention to these issues and to work aggressively to try to mediate these,” Gooden said.
While racial health disparities may not go away overnight, experts argue that the African American community has already overcome many inequalities and will not stop now.
“As the African American community, we’ve been thrown the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the mishaps of the civil rights era, mass incarceration — and under all of that pressure, we’ve given the world jazz, a moral compass, spiritual depth,” Wilson said. “Out of this profound sense of pressure, we have historically been able to give the world beauty.”
Contact Brianna Willis via Twitter: @BriannaWillisTV or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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