The Surgeon General Meets the Language Police

Jerome Adams acknowledged the vulnerability of people of color—but ran afoul of a powerful ideology.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams
Alex Brandon / AP

Surgeon General Jerome Adams is on the hot plate. His sin? With new indications that the coronavirus is disproportionately killing black and brown people, he suggested that we refrain from alcohol and cigarettes. Adams is aware that the virus often preys on people with preexisting conditions, worries that people of color harbor them disproportionately, and knows that entrenched inequality plays a major role in that: “The chronic burden of medical ills,” Adams said at a White House briefing Friday, “is likely to make people of color, especially, less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19. And it is possibly, in fact, likely that the burden of social ills is likely contributing.”

In the here and now, however, he suggested some changes of habit. Do it “for your abuela,” he warmly urged. “Do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop-pop.”

Pressed on this language by the PBS NewsHour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, the surgeon general—who is black and said he has Latinos among his extended relatives—explained that he uses the same terms within his own family. When Alcindor tweeted out his comments urging people of color to “step up,” she wrote, “Some will find this language offensive”—and the off-the-charts response provided ample confirmation of that. “This is rhetoric steeped in racism,” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith tweeted. The nonprofit executive Rashad Robinson accused the surgeon general of blaming black people for the consequences of systemic prejudice. They and other blue-check commentators were appalled that Adams had had the nerve to urge people of color to change their behavior, rather than resting with his acknowledgment that societal inequality exposes them to more risk from the virus.

The question is why this is considered such a transgression. Over the past two weeks, countless reporters and commentators have documented that COVID-19 is hitting black people harder in many areas nationwide and that this is because of entrenched race-based disparities in our society. Why, then, is it so appalling that Adams did not flag this as his main message, when the message has been made so resonantly clear elsewhere?

Members of a certain highly educated cohort consider it sacrosanct that those speaking for or to black people always and eternally stress structural flaws in America’s sociopolitical fabric past and present as the cause of black ills. To mention that there are more concrete and local solutions to various things ailing black America, regardless of their origin, is traitorous—even blasphemous. Whatever the volume and rhetorical brilliance of this ideology, it is indeed an ideology. Specifically, it represents a way of thinking that has become especially popular among, for example, the black intelligentsia over the past decade or three, but has much less purchase among black people in general. The writers and thinkers give an impression that their take is simple truth, when it has actually devolved into a reflexive, menacing brand of language policing.

We have been here before. Not long ago, readers were assessing the proposition from The New York Times that American history begins not in 1776 but in 1619 when the first Africans were bought to these shores in bondage. One intent of this proposal is to discourage any sense that disparities between blacks and whites are due to some kind of black inferiority. We are to keep front and center that all black problems today can be traced to the attitudes and structures that set in starting in 1619.

Yet we might ask what that kind of news is supposed to do for a black person having problems here in 2020 (such as, perhaps, suffering from effects of the coronavirus). A pragmatic black activism today can focus on any number of strategies, such as ending the war on drugs, transforming educational practice for poor black kids, and making long-acting, reversible contraceptives more easily available to all poor women. Notably, all of these things could happen without any particular musings about what happened in Virginia in 1619. However, among some highly educated people, this qualifies as “not getting it.” In these circles, the 1619 idea has been rapturously received, despite trenchant questions about its historical accuracy.

We can go further back, when Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, was roasted for supposedly condescending to a black audience in urging black men to take a larger role in rearing their children. Even though he did this with a vernacular warmth that his audience ate up with a spoon, legions of black thinkers reviled the president for addressing behavior rather than the broader causes that made counsel such as his necessary in the first place. “Barack’s been talking down to black people,” Jesse Jackson complained on a live microphone a few weeks afterward. More than a decade later, commentators were still scolding Obama for “finger-wagging” at black people instead of dwelling on root causes.

But for precisely which reason must the responsible black public figure always “go wide” in this way in their advice to black America? Why is Adams not allowed to remind black and brown people to hold off on the smoking? Why are we to think more of how our problems are connected to events and assumptions from centuries ago than about what to do about them now? Why was a black president wrong to have given some fatherly counsel to a black audience who loved it?

The objection will be that these things are fine but that the root-cause catechism must always be given its full airing. And yes, we must know and understand root causes. But if by “full airing” we mean that each and every public speech holding the catechism anything less than front and center is roasted as heretical, again, why? Is this not something of a diktat masquerading as wisdom? The punitive attitude, the imperviousness to questions, the demand that one recite certain mantras as if at gunpoint—all of this suggests a matter less of pragmatism than creed and identity.

It is hardly unfamiliar in human affairs for good intentions to drift into an ideology that does more to provide fellowship for its own believers than it does to change lives and society for the better. There just may be something sinister about even concerned black public figures cordially counseling their flock to refrain from smoking and drugs and ensure that as many of their kids as possible are raised by two parents. Likewise, there just may be some kind of shining, impregnable wisdom in the idea that black America is besmirched by public statements that do not hold root-causes arguments front and center, regardless of whether they can have any impact upon the urgencies of present-day circumstances. However, we have not heard such wisdom yet. For now, this is a conceit local to a rarefied group of thinkers with direct access to media organs.

One must think of the great majority of black people at times like this, and frankly, very few of them think of wise counsel in hard times as treachery or condescension.