The coronavirus is novel, but the consistently deleterious experiences of Black and brown people in this country, especially as it relates to health and education, is not.
You may have heard the saying, “When America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.” The impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans—not to mention Latinx and Native Americans—has been no different.
The United States reported more than 75,600 new cases on Thursday, and now 3.6 million Americans have contracted the virus. Out of that number, nearly 139,000 people have died.
Yet President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are demanding public schools reopen in person or face having their funding withheld. (They actually don’t have the authority to do this.) The two have decided it is worth putting thousands of educators and students at risk of contracting COVID and possibly dying from it, rather than wait until the virus is under control.
To add insult to injury, they have offered no comprehensive plan or guidance, and left the school reopenings up to local and state governments to figure out. For some states (New York, Maine, Virginia), that will work out great, while in others, it will be a disaster (Florida, Texas, and Georgia).
And who is going to be impacted the most by these school reopenings? You guessed it—Black and brown Americans.
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According to the CDC, due to historic systemic health and social inequities in society, African Americans are experiencing COVID-19 more severely, regardless of age. African Americans contract COVID-19 five times more often than non-Hispanic Whites, and Latinx people contract COVID-19 four times more often than non-Hispanic Whites. While COVID-19 data is somewhat limited, what we do know is that African-Americans are bearing the brunt of the virus in terms of deaths.
Death rates among Black people between 55-64 years are higher than for white people aged 65-74, and death rates are higher for Blacks aged 65-74 than for whites aged 75-84, and so on, according to the Brookings Institute. In every age category, Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older. Age-specific death rates for Hispanic/Latino people fall in between.
Among those aged 45-54, for example, Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates are at least six times higher than for whites. Whites comprise 62% of people in the U.S. between ages 45-54. In that age group, 1,013 white people have died from COVID-19 (22% of the total) compared to 1,448 Black people and 1,698 Hispanic/Latino people.
What does all of this mean? In addition to placing everyone who may be forced to return to public schools (including colleges and universities) at avoidable risk, Black and brown educators, students, and parents face greater danger of severe illness and death.
Trump and DeVos want Black and brown educators and students to come into schools across the country in a racial climate that hauntingly reflects the Jim Crow era of the last century, deal with people and students who may have the same reckless ideas about not wearing masks as some of their parents, and teach and learn in a socially distanced space with the weight of knowing that if they contract the virus, they will be in grave peril. Excuse me?
It’s unfortunate that the president and his education secretary haven’t learned that ignoring scientific experts, hoping for the best, and willful ignorance is why we are where we are right now. Failure to acknowledge, act, inform, or respond to the threat of COVID-19 with a comprehensive strategy or to listen to the experts in the room about COVID-19 in November 2019 and again in January 2020 is how we got here.
Let me say it loud for people in the back: Black and brown educators and students cannot afford to risk returning to school in person for several reasons. In the case of African Americans, according to AARP, 31% have grandparents as primary caretakers. Our households have already been hit disproportionately by COVID-related unemployment, illnesses, and death, and we cannot afford to have people coming and going who may or may not be carriers of the virus—especially if they have underlying conditions that disproportionately impact Black and brown communities, such as diabetes, hypertension, respiratory illnesses (asthma), and autoimmune disorders like Lupus.
It is already stressful enough that Black and brown people occupy a disproportionate number of “essential personnel” roles in the workforce. Who is going to take care of the children if the adults in the home are all sick or dead because those children were made to attend school in person during a pandemic? Who is going to take care of the adults when their children suffer and die alone in a hospital without human contact from someone who loves them?
It is hard to trust the folks in charge when common sense and decency is nowhere to be found in too many cases. Exhibit A: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp—who went on a “wear a mask” tour to promote mask-wearing literally two weeks ago—has now turned around and banned cities in Georgia from mandating masks in public places, despite knowing and having said wearing a face mask saves lives. We’re supposed to listen to Kemp and his administration about school reopenings? I’ll pass.
The coronavirus is novel, but the consistently deleterious experiences of Black and brown people in this country, especially as it relates to health and education, is not. As of July 16, only four states in the country have met expert guidelines laid out for reopening their economies—so why Trump, DeVos, and company insist reopening schools will be safe is beyond me.
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Whatever the case, Black and brown lives should not be devalued in this chaotic process. Returning to school needs to be safe for everyone, not just the privileged and empowered.
There’s a meme floating around that says if you’re discussing opening schools in person via Zoom, then you probably should not be reopening schools. Agreed. Black and brown people are over catching hell in America, and that includes COVID-19.