Makes Me Wanna Holler
2020 has me feeling like Marvin Gaye. You know:
“Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’
No, no, no
“Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading
“Yeah, it makes me want to holler
And throw up both my hands…”
Art by Rosie Rosado
This is NOT how I expected to spend the year in which I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday. Here we are, mid-June 2020, realizing this country might never be the same. There is no “going back to normal,” there is only this “new normal.”
Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forever shifted every conceivable landscape—from how we work, to how we connect, learn, shop, play, and/or worship.
What it also did was cast a light on health disparities and inequities, particularly for people who identify as Black/African American.
I found myself bothered with headlines like:
- “COVID-19 Killing African Americans at Shocking Rates…”
- “COVID-19 Has Infected and Killed Black People At Alarming Rates…”,
Largely because the news was neither shocking nor alarming. How was this being framed as some new discovery?!
Suddenly there was a national conversation about:
- Proximity: the number of Black people living in densely populated urban centers
- Pre-existing health conditions: the health problems that Black people had before COVID-19 showed up
- Workforce: the numbers of Black folk with jobs that were deemed essential
On the one hand, I had always wanted to see these topics being discussed at the national level—but not like this, not focused on finger-pointing and blaming.
I also noticed what was missing: a deeper conversation about WHY the numbers were so high.
I wanted to hear more about the social determinants of health.
I wanted to hear someone, ANYONE (except Black folk) say “racism.”
I found myself rolling my eyes excessively until it—“it” being Black folk being disproportionately diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19-related complications—was no longer in the news cycle.
And just like that, we—our infections and deaths—were discarded like yesterday’s news.
And then, another virus reared its ugly, 400+-year-old head.
Speaking of news, amid the seemingly 24-7 COVID-19 news cycle, we were hit with news of another color.
- Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed while jogging, after beinghunted chased by three white men. He had been murdered in February.
- Then came the news of a no-knock warrant that resulted in the execution of Breonna Taylor, who died in March.
- And it would be a recording of the callous smothering of George Floydthat would bring this country to more of a screeching halt than could COVID-19.
I could not bring myself to watch another video.
I could barely stomach the photos.
I was done.
It was too much.
Nothing made sense, nothing was joyful, and I was on a greased slide to hopelessness.
I wanted to talk about ALL of the things.
I also wanted to talk about NONE of the things.
Because I knew there would be new names, new hashtags, new outrage, new calls to action for reform, new rounds of calls to police because Black people had the audacity to refuse to legitimize their presence to white people who questioned their right to be in certain spaces, and new justifications for the mounting piles of Black bodies.
Welcome, friends, to the perfect storm.
A “perfect storm” is defined by Merriam Webster’s online dictionary as “a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful occurrence of factors.”
Young people have organized dozens, maybe hundreds of peaceful protests in response to police brutality around the country, around the globe. For me, this has been most inspiring. Our young people need our support, our connections and—when appropriate—our guidance.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the critique of anti-brutality protests, cultivated by angst, anger, sadness and exhaustion of overpoliced communities.
It has been fascinating.
From recommendations of a more centralized voice of leadership (as if assassinations from the 60s suddenly are no longer a thing), to calls for the protests to be kinder, full of anger and less violence.
How ironic—that a nation who watched the violent suffocating of George Floyd would suddenly demand less violence.
The same people who trash property in response to winning a championship game—they want less violence. Because their RIOTING is considered an “exuberant celebration.”
The same people who storm state capitals armed to the teeth, to scream in the faces of elected officials for HAIRCUTS—they want less violence. Because their THREATS are considered “exercising their 1st amendment rights.”
But when frustrations in Black communities erupt and spill into the streets and communities, like the contents of a pressure cooker on a high flame—well, the reactionary outrage and critique were both swift and predictable.
Everybody complains about the mess. Nobody critiques the flame.
I suppose it is easier to complain about the mess made when the contents have boiled over, spilled all over the counter.
The mess is easy to see—it is both immediate and tangible.
On the one hand, I had always wanted to see these topics being discussed at the national level—but not like this, not focused on whether or not Black lives matter
I also noticed what was missing: a deeper conversation about WHY these protests were happening.
Yet no one critiques the flame.
The flame, of course, is racism.
Dr. Camara Jones defines racism as “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value, based on the social interpretation of how we look.” I wrote that down in my journal when I saw her in person, for the first time, at a Health Equity Summit in the Spring of 2010.
She went on to say that racism unfairly advantages and unfairly disadvantages individuals and communities.
On the other hand, let’s review what’s offered as factors in the large numbers of COVID-19 infection and death rates for Black Americans:
- Their ages
- Proximity to community members due to living in densely populated urban centers
- Pre-existing (health) conditions, and
- The numbers of Black folk in jobs deemed “essential.”
I am a dyed-in-the-wool public health geek. When I see a list like this, I think of the social determinants of health (SDoH)—the conditions into which one is born, grows, lives, learns, plays, works, ages, and worships.
The World Health Organization says “these circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.”
You know what’s missing from that definition?
Racism and its impact on the SDoH.
We cannot continue to ignore the role of racism in health inequities. A closer look will connect all the COVID-19 dots.
Racism is the main ingredient baked into all our governing institutions—into every system. It’s supplied in healthy portions, by way of laws, policies, and practices.
Black Americans have been choking on its taste for centuries.
Today’s hot-button issue is racial violence. Specifically, how it’s playing out in public safety, with police brutality and zero accountability.
However, it’s our responsibility to see how all of the systems are connected. These are not separate, isolated events.
A closer look will connect all the COVID-19 dots.
We cannot have an honest conversation about the rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths for Black Americans if we are unwilling to discuss the ways the flame of racial violence also plays out in proximity, pre-existing conditions, and “essential” employment.
Racism is responsible for the close proximity of Black folks. Urban centers happened by design, not by accident. Federal, state, and local policies allowed for discriminatory housing, lending, and insurance practices. Planning and zoning boards allowed for geographical and social segregation. As federal subsidies underwrote suburbia, they oversaw the erosion of tax bases in and divestment from urban centers. Thriving communities were suddenly abandoned; and in the place of small businesses and markets were convenience stores, liquor stores and the like, diminishing access to healthier food options and green spaces.
Racism is responsible for many, if not all, pre-existing health conditions. The adage that zip codes are a better predictor of health status and health outcomes is true. The same can be said down to the census tract.
Last year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shared a tool that shows one’s life expectancy, based on where you live.
I typed in my mother’s address, where my life expectancy showed it was 80.3 years. Then I typed in my address, a mere 1.7 miles away from her—now my life expectancy was 75.5 years.
I lost 5 years of my life based on where I live.
High rates of chronic disease are shrugged off and blamed solely on health behaviors. And remember: racist laws and policies helped design communities, ultimately shaping people’s access (or lack thereof) to transportation, employment, education, healthier food options, and health care services.
Racism is the reason why so many Black people hold Essential jobs. Black labor has ALWAYS been essential and just like slavery, we are over-exposed and under-protected.
See how racism brings all the COVID-19 dots together like a connect the dots puzzle?
Black Lives Matter… on paper
So now what? Some of us have the luxury of working from home and are inundated with images of racial violence in a way that we may have been able to previously ignore.
Corporations, businesses big and small, brands, sports teams, nonprofits, have called for racial healing and justice, declared commitments to anti-racist and equity work, and boldly proclaimed that Black Lives Matter.
That’s cute and not nearly enough. Simply put, if:
- The faces of shareholders, boards of directors, key leadership positions and decision makers do not accurately reflect organizational statements of solidarity…
- Black men and women experience gaslighting and other microaggressions in the organizations with no avenue for relief…
- Black women and men are paid less for doing the same job as their white counterparts…
- Black children are exposed to higher rates of arrest and other disciplinary actions in schools than their white counterparts…
- Black mothers are ignored at your health care facility when she tells you something is wrong and dies during or after childbirth…
…then the statements aren’t worth the paper on which they are written.
There is a ton of work to be done, from policing reform to health care reform—there is something for all of us to do.
The State of Connecticut should:
- Declare racism as a public health issue and commit itself, by way of each of its connected agencies to doing the same- like tuhDAY;
- Commit to expanding Medicaid so that families can stop having to choose between paying exorbitant health insurance premiums and rent, food, prescription medicines;
- Require not-for-profit hospital systems to invest significant moneys into implementing the very health improvement plans they are required to design to maintain nonprofit status;
- Consider affordability as a factor when insurers request their annual rate increases;
- And for crying out loud, implement a standardized method of collecting “race’ ethnicity and language data be collected in all health spheres.
If we are to move the needle, we need to be able to accurately assess the needs of Connecticut residents and distribute resources to address those needs.
And then we must continue to hold ourselves accountable by doing the deep inner work needed to make all of this matter.
As we do our organizational work, are we centering our “equity work” on the voices on the people who are disproportionately impacted by a host of issues, or do we just conduct endless listening sessions, in an endless data collection quest?
Do we invite community members to be part of codesigning and trust them to lead implementation of solutions, or do we just invite them to the proverbial table and insist on their silence & gratefulness that they were invited?
Because if your work is centered on sharing images of solidarity, but you are not practicing equity and racial justice internally, stop.
I shouldn’t have to keep writing this blog post
About six months into my Advocacy Communications fellowship and Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, I wrote a blog called #BlackHealthMatters. I shared the blog with one of my SisterFriends earlier recently and she said, “Man, it kills me that you could just re-post this.” She is right, of course, and that is both heartbreaking and infuriating.
I have been on a hamster wheel of sorts of emotions, ranging from profound sadness to indescribable rage to outright numbness. Ultimately, I want this world to be better for my children and grandchildren and am committed to doing my part. I am doing the work. There are plenty of ways to contribute to Black Americans’ transition from free-ish to liberated.
Let’s get this work. This is a critical moment for this country—the world is watching.
What will you do?
Stephanye Clarke is a program officer at Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. Prior to that she was an advocacy communications fellow and communications coordinator at Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.