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Jermaine Reed is the executive director of Fresh Start Family Services and Ujima House in Milwaukee. In this piece, he considers “Safer at Home” and disparate rates of COVID-19 on the North Side in the context of historical trauma in the black community.
Before we go arresting marginalized black and brown folks, let’s look at some of the root causes of anti-social, high-risk behaviors and who’s responsible.
Let’s peel the onion back.
African Americans, in general, have a historic mistrust of the public health system. To name a few: the Tuskegee experiment, the secret harvesting of cells from Henrietta Lacks, forced eugenics and sterilization targeting African American women and segregated, unequal medical treatment during the Jim Crow era. What science tells us is that trauma is coded in our DNA and is subconsciously passed down through generations.
This can lead us to avoid seeking care, practicing prevention or even not adhering to orders like “Safer at Home,” even though we need it to avoid spreading the virus or becoming seriously ill. This ultimately worsens the impact of the epidemic on our community.
We need to fully understand that local, state and federal government systems have created the current health crisis disparity impacting black and brown people. We know that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but racialized U.S. public policy has for centuries, in ways that now leave black and brown people more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. That is why, as of the time I’m writing, in Milwaukee County the majority of the confirmed COVID-19 cases and all fatalities are black.
Medical College of Wisconsin research also shows that blacks suffer from higher rates of conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, blood cancer and kidney disease — problems that experts say could make COVID-19 more severe and life-threatening.
Social distancing and quarantining are not a new concept for black folks or the government. The government effectively isolated black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than our white counterparts. Through redlining, the U.S. created ghettos that have black and brown folks living on top of one another. It set up food deserts, deindustrialized and exported jobs and now want us to remain six feet apart. A study published by Medical Care Research and Review in 2014 found that an increase in the concentration of black people in a neighborhood is associated with a corresponding decrease in availability of surgical equipment.
I believe some black folks on the North Side of Milwaukee are not staying at home because we have lived in a place of hopelessness and despair, and we do not trust the government. As the most studied group of people in this country, for some, this feels like another government experiment where we are the subjects, even though we may not be.
Police can ticket or arrest us for not self-quarantining, but in reality, Milwaukee is the worse place for blacks to live in this country. Blacks here have already been quarantined and locked out of mainstream society. Perhaps communities ravaged by mass incarceration have citizens who aren’t trying to be on “lockdown.” Black folks have been living in the “hole” and may suffer psychologically as a result. Maybe “Safer at Home” is a trigger for PTSD for one group of individuals versus another.
Gov. Tony Evers called what is happening with some African Americans on Milwaukee’s North Side a “crisis within a crisis.” He is asking us to self-quarantine while being politically quarantined. He wants “all hands on deck,” while Joe Biden said, “we are all in this together.”
You and I know that has never been or will be the case in Wisconsin, Milwaukee or America. Until the governor, county executive, mayor and every elected official commit to addressing the structural inequalities in this state, county and city, in a real and meaningful way, recovery will be long and inequitable.