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.