Photo: Robin Gentry/Getty Images
A s 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:
Recent news articles and local health data indicate that African Americans in some cities and counties are being infected and dying from Covid-19 at higher rates than their White counterparts. On April 1, The Atlantic reported that in Illinois, African Americans make up 14.6% of the population, but 28% of confirmed cases. On April 3, ProPublica reported that in Milwaukee County, where the population is 26% Black, African Americans currently comprise “almost half of [the] county’s 941 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths.” In Michigan, the state’s population is 14% Black, but African Americans currently make up 34% of the cases and 40% of deaths. And in North Carolina, the state’s population is 22% Black, but African Americans currently make up 36% of the cases and 25% of deaths from Covid-19. The data coming out of these local and state health departments is likely indicative of the disproportionate impact that Black communities are experiencing across the country.
It’s true that the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 does not discriminate against race, class, gender, or country. But the rate of confirmed cases and deaths proves that it is having a disproportionate impact on the Black community, and on Black men most of all. In order to protect the public health of all Americans — not only now, but after the pandemic’s initial wave — it’s time to right the wrong of the past. It’s time for a true public health campaign that begins with Black men.
Secretary Azar, you owe it to the men of the Tuskegee Experiments. You owe it to the Tuskegee Airmen, those heroes of the sky who defended their country, only to be cruelly reminded of their worth in America’s eyes when they came home. You owe it to them, and us, to provide disaggregated data, as suggested by the African American Mayors Association, that will help policymakers and outside partners better understand the coronavirus’ impact on different segments of the population — and craft more calibrated responses.
Even if you don’t care about the lives of Black men, I tell you now: To deny this exposes the “All Lives Matter” canard for the fraud it is. Black men’s lives, perched precariously on the upswing of the pandemic’s curve, are ours. All of ours. And it’s time for everyone to care.