Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., as public health researchers we already knew the virus would devastate the most vulnerable among us — people unable to telework and people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and asthma. But not even the science could have prepared us for the perfect storm that is the rapid succession of deaths of unarmed black people during a worldwide pandemic.
As people of color, we are reeling from these twin realities. Neither our education nor our profession protect us from the daily experiences of racism. We live in fear that we or our loved ones might not return home safe and sound. Our work is now a life and death matter.
As scholar-activists, we examine a multitude of issues that shape the health of black people including: smoking, addiction, HIV/AIDS, cancer prevention, exercise, neighborhood and housing quality, and black child development. Cutting across all of our research is the persistent reality that American racism is at the root of all of these health problems.
Living while black is a cruel paradox. Our very existence is a constant threat to our health and safety.
“Living while black” is a cruel paradox. Our very existence is a constant threat to our health and safety. The constant state of race-related stress and hypervigilance ages our bodies and leads to premature death. Add to it the worry a chance encounter with the police can get us killed. Even videos and witnesses are no deterrent for policy brutality against black people. It’s a constant fear of every black parent.
According to the Washington Post database on police killings, “black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.” Rates of death from COVID-19 are approximately 2–4 times greater for black people, according to NPR. Furthermore, racial discrimination in health care in which medical complaints are minimized and dismissed, leading to late diagnoses and higher rates of death from disease. These realities coupled with the persistence of the legacy of government-sanctioned racial segregation of black residents in cities around the country culminate in shorter life expectancy.
We refuse to overlook these systemic injustices and the destruction of black bodies. We want to be crystal clear — this is not a black versus white issue. This is a battle between humanity and racism. We need allies of all hues, professions and walks of life to reject racism in all its forms. When it is disguised and subtly wrapped in microaggressions, call it out. We need police officers to condemn police brutality and to punish officers who act in a reckless manner and violate the public trust. We need bold and fearless people to speak up and become agents of change. In 2020, indifference, excuses, and silence equals complicity. Say something when you hear those casual jokes negatively stereotyping black people as lazy, dumb, diseased, or dangerous. Educate yourself on all the ways the American governmental policies have created the conditions leading to this horrifying state of affairs. Recognize, reflect, and address your own implicit biases.
We are exhausted by the sea of black death, but we are not defeated. We do not need any more police brutality victims nor do we need another hashtag. We need the killing to stop. Full stop. We need our government and healthcare system to take our health seriously. The only way to solve these problems is with a grass-roots inclusive, national, comprehensive research and policy agenda to dismantle the pandemic of racism in the United States. We need action. The wellbeing of our country depends on it.
Mia A. Smith-Bynum, Craig S. Fryer, Jennifer D. Roberts, Cher M. Dallal, Typhanye V. Dyer, James Butler, III
Agents of Change is a group of public health scholars at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. We represent the African Diaspora. We study health disparities through a social justice lens. An edited version of this piece will be published in the Baltimore Sun.