Over the past two weeks, each answer led to new questions. Should states be collecting racial data? Yes. Do those data show racial disparities? They do. And that led to the question Americans have been arguing over since the beginning of the republic: Why do racial disparities exist? Why are black people generally being infected and dying at higher rates than other racial groups? This is the question of the hour. And too many Americans are answering this new question in the old, familiar way. They are blaming poverty, but refusing to recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion.
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And Americans are blaming black people. To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying medical conditions but, crucially, they’re not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.
“Now, if you have diabetes, obesity, hypertension, then African Americans are going to have more of those receptors” the coronavirus likes to hit, Senator Bill Cassidy said on NPR’s Morning Edition. “Now, as a physician, I would say we need to address the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects African Americans. That would lower the prevalence of diabetes, of hypertension.”
When pressed on whether these “underlying health conditions” are “rooted in years of systemic racism,” Cassidy responded: “That’s rhetoric, and it may be. But as a physician, I’m looking at science.”
Without question, African Americans suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, obesity, and asthma, which make it harder for them to survive COVID-19. But if Cassidy were looking at science, then he’d also be asking: Why are African American suffering more from these chronic diseases? Why are African Americans more likely to be obese than Latinos and whites?
Defending Cassidy, Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, argued that “in the South, country white people and country black people eat the same kind of food” and wondered “to what extent black folks all over the country still eat the traditional soul food diet with lots of grease, salt, pork, sugar, and carbs.” To which one of Dreher’s readers responded: “I am especially amused by the implication that a racist conspiracy is keeping brussel sprouts and kale from black neighborhoods. If people wanted fresh vegetables and salads and tofu, stores would provide them.” If there are food deserts, it seems, then black people are to blame.
If black people receive inferior care from hospitals and doctors, are black people to blame? If black people are less likely to be insured, are black people are to blame? If hospitals in majority-black counties are overloaded with coronavirus patients, are black people to blame?