The nation’s most popular blues singer was not immune. Beginning in the final weeks of 1926, rainfall was as heavy and unrelenting in middle American states as today’s coronavirus has been in all states.
By April 1927, the Mississippi River’s rapidly rising waters burst levees in Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, inundating 26,000 square miles of land. Cash-crop production in the nation’s most prosperous agricultural region halted. Floodwaters killed upwards of 1,000 people and injured untold others. More than 1 million people had to leave their home for months until the floodwaters subsided, not unlike the many millions of people today who will likely remain in their home for months, until the contagion subsides. All told, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 may have been the worst natural disaster in American history.
The Empress of the Blues likely witnessed its earliest days. On Christmas Day in 1926, the Cumberland River overflowed both banks in Nashville, Tennessee, causing thousands of residents to flee their home. When Bessie Smith arrived in the flooded city days later, a rowboat took the Tennessee native to makeshift lodgings: the upstairs rooms of a crowded undertaker parlor. The parlor was crowded not with death escaping life, but with life escaping death, with black people who bore the brunt of the floodwaters, who pleaded with the Empress to sing a song she’d never sung.
As always in times of crisis, the people gave voice to great art, and a great artist reproduced the people’s voice. Weeks later, Smith recorded “Back-Water Blues.”
Back-water blues done caused me to pack up my things and go,
Back-water blues done caused me to pack up my things and go,
’Cause my house fell down, and I can’t live there no more.
Black people related to these blues more than anyone else. They comprised more than 90 percent of the victims of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Homeless and jobless African Americans fled the natural disaster and ended up in state-sponsored relief camps patrolled by armed guards who brutally forced them to labor in the cleanup efforts.
Beatings. Lynchings. Rapes. “All of this mean and brutish treatment of the colored people is nothing but downright slavery,” one Mississippi minister complained to President Calvin Coolidge.
Throughout the crisis, government officials and mainstream journalists informing the public largely denied or ignored the human disaster of racism that was secretly worsening the natural disaster. In its lead story on April 26, 1927, The New York Times reported that “whether white or black there is no distinction in the matter of succor, and in this work the State of Mississippi is rendering, as if the Government, every aid within its power or authority.”
Today, America faces a new disaster—but it’s not clear who the victims of the coronavirus actually are. We have little publicly available data about the racial makeup of those Americans who have been tested, those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, those who have been hospitalized, those who have become critically ill, those who have recovered, or those who have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s information site does not offer racial data. Neither does the Johns Hopkins University database used by CNN, The New York Times’ count, nor the COVID Tracking Project. Few states, municipalities, or private labs are releasing their data by race.
On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health became one of the few state offices to release some racial data. And the data showed a pandemic within the pandemic: African Americans are significantly overrepresented in infection rates in Illinois, while whites and Latinos are significantly underrepresented. African Americans make up 14.6 percent of the state population, but 28 percent of confirmed cases of the coronavirus. White people comprise 76.9 percent of the Illinois population, and 39 percent of the confirmed cases. Latinos comprise 17.4 percent of the state population, and 7 percent of the cases. In Illinois, Asian Americans were the only racial group without a significant disparity between their state population, at 5.9 percent, and confirmed cases, at 4 percent. (Nearly a third of cases were recorded as “other” or left blank. Illinois did not release racial data on Native Americans, or on testing, hospitalization, and death rates by race.)
What we are seeing in Illinois could be happening nationwide—we just don’t know. On Friday, Democratic lawmakers, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley, called out the Trump administration for the lack of racial data. “Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The United States has eclipsed China with the highest number of reported coronavirus cases in the world. More than 4,000 coronavirus patients have died in the United States. Coronavirus outbreaks are plaguing metropolises with large black and brown populations including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and New York, and also smaller cities like Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Albany, Georgia. Case numbers are rising as rapidly as the Mississippi River in 1927. We know where—in what states, in what counties. But we don’t know who—which people in those counties and states. And if we don’t know to whom it is spreading, then how can we alert the people who are at a higher risk of being infected? How can we slow the spread?
Do we truly want to save lives and win the war against COVID-19? How can we defend the American people if we don’t know where the battles are, if we don’t know what people the enemy is most likely attacking? COVID-19 is the great equalizer, infecting and killing Americans of all racial groups. But we don’t know whether all the racial groups are being infected and killed equally.
I worry the virus is disproportionately infecting and killing people of color right now—and we don’t even know. I worry the pandemic of racism is worsening the coronavirus pandemic right now—and we don’t even know. And Americans don’t seem to care to know.
I suspect that some Americans believe that racial data will worsen racism. But without racial data, we can’t see whether there are disparities between the races in coronavirus testing, infection, and death rates. If we can’t see racial disparities, then we can’t see the racist policies behind any disparities and deaths. If we can’t see racist policies, we can’t eliminate racist policies, or replace them with anti-racist policies that protect equity and life. Without racial data, we can’t see racism, and racism becomes like asymptomatic carriers—spreading the virus, and no one knows it.
Maybe my suspicions are wrong. I hope they are. Maybe I need to stop making everything about race, as my critics say. Maybe I should ignore the fact that I don’t make things about race where I know equity and justice exist. Maybe I should ignore that fact that we can’t know whether equity exists without racial data. Maybe I should ignore the fact that before this viral global pandemic, health disparities were a viral American pandemic.
Maybe some people fear that if racial data were to show that COVID-19 is disproportionately harming people of color, then white people will stop caring. In the early stages of the pandemic, some labeled it a “Chinese virus,” leading to attacks on those of Asian descent (and not on the virus). Maybe some fear that white sympathy for victims will recede like Mississippi floodwaters in the fall of 1927, and with it, the flood of public resources. But even if white people were less likely to be infected and die from the coronavirus, they wouldn’t need to care about people like me in order to act. Infection anywhere is a threat to the uninfected everywhere.
Maybe there is only a class issue here. Maybe I should ignore all the racial health disparities that cut across classes. Maybe I should ignore the fact that a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than eight years of schooling. Maybe race doesn’t matter in health outcomes. Maybe that’s why there are all sorts of stories spotlighting the class divide. Maybe I should listen to those post-racial Americans suggesting that class is the salient divider of the infected from the healthy, the recovering from the dying. That the irresponsible behavior of disproportionately poor people of color is the problem—not racism—as the post-racial conservatives believe. That the irresponsible policies of capitalism are the problem—not racism—as the post-racial progressives believe. That the malfunctions of poor people of color and capitalism are the problems—not racism—as the post-racial centrists believe.
But no conservative, centrist, or progressive can say for sure whether race or class or even their intersection is the salient divider during the pandemic. We have data on neither the class nor the race of victims, let alone the intersectional data that would allow us to assess, say, whether poor Asian women are dying at higher or lower rates than poor white women; or whether white elites and Latino elites are being infected at similar or dissimilar rates. We just don’t know.
Anti-racist researchers and advocates are walking in a haze of uncertainty about potential COVID-19 health disparities. The virus might be ravaging Latinos in Florida and California, Native Americans in Oklahoma, or Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans in New York City at greater rates than others in those same states and cities—or white people could be disproportionately affected. But no one knows, because Americans don’t want to talk about race. But in not talking about race, we may be allowing the coronavirus to slaughter certain races.
My greatest dread is this. What if in a few months, the American curve starts to flatten? What if President Donald Trump and like-minded state officials reopen public life in certain areas? What if we can’t see that the flattening curve of the majority of Americans is overriding the curve of some minority of Americans? What if opening public life leads to a second cycle of infection among one particular group? And what if we claim that we don’t know why? What if we end up blaming COVID-19, when we should really be blaming our racist lack of racial data?
More likely, in that scenario, Americans will do what Americans do best: deny racism, blame the racial group that’s dying, and self-identify as “not racist.” More Americans than not would hail President Trump for flattening the curve, even if some groups are left behind. After all, Trump’s approval rating has already climbed to one of the highest points of his presidency, according to recent polls. Maybe Trump would narrowly win reelection on his concocted coronavirus response, and his political opponents wouldn’t have the racial data to show his Katrina-like neglect.
This isn’t so far-fetched a scenario. It’s precisely what happened in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. President Coolidge tapped Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to oversee the federal response. Hoover suppressed mainstream reports of racial violence and exploitation in relief camps. Instead, white reporters shared stories of southern black flood victims, like the thoughts of “Uncle Eph,” as relayed by The New York Times: “Mr. Hoover sho’ thought about ever’thing. No wonder de niggers thinks well of Mr. Hoover. Sho’ would make a noble President.”
Meanwhile, black periodicals flooded black America with stories on the atrocities in Hoover’s relief camps, and on the mass exodus of flood victims out of the Mississippi Valley. “Let them ride, run and crawl out of this hell,” bellowed W. E. B. Du Bois in the NAACP’s The Crisis. But nothing could mar Hoover’s political luster among northern white Americans ignorant of his racism, or among southern white Americans cheering on his racism. Hoover seized on southern support for his mismanagement, and further whitened and nationalized the GOP in his 1928 presidential campaign. He succeeded Coolidge in the White House and promptly led Americans into the Great Depression. I can only imagine what Trump will promptly lead Americans into if he receives a second term.
Without racial data, we could end up stranded in Trump’s America a year after the worst pandemic in American history, flooded out of truth and justice and fairness, homeless like Black Mississippians in 1927, and needing another Bessie Smith to sing for us.
Mmmm, I can’t move no more
Mmmm, I can’t move no more
There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go.
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