COVID-19 & being Black in America

Maya Trotz

Before I start, Wear a Mask, especially if indoors.

Now, Imagine being worried as an educator of having to teach in person because you fear that you or the Black students in your class may be exposed to the COVID-19 virus while there, become a carrier, and subsequently expose other Black folk in the community to the virus. That was not something I thought about until the end of June when my colleagues raised it in a meeting on “Black Lives Matter” organized by Dean Bishop of the College of Engineering at the University of South Florida. Dr. Janice Blanchard and her colleagues wrote about this as Black doctors, “For Us, COVID‐19 Is Personal,” and I had chatted with her about the best masks that she could advise her family and friends to make/wear. As Black educators responsible for laboratory courses, many of which retain in-person components for the Fall semester, the deep concern that my colleagues raised on behalf of the Black students in their classes, and on behalf of the Black families they live with, socialize with, pray with etc., is something that I have been processing ever since, and thought I better write about it for my own care at this time.

On April 6th I received an email from a colleague who worked at the Florida Department of Health, about the launch of a “stronger than COVID-19” survey. I replied with the following, “Have been wondering about what’s needed in East Tampa. Been in touch with a resident who has been battling the disease for a few weeks now, and trying to send her dinners every once in a while. Her doctors kept sending her home from hospital, so am concerned about care Black folk are getting. Do we have demographic info for the area? Seeing numbers from NY, Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans, and a lot of Black folk are dying.” Newspapers were reporting the lack of demographic data for COVID-19 cases and deaths at the time, and Florida was not sharing that information back then. A few days later, she forwarded me an email showing demographic data for Florida by county. The information is limited to cases by race and ethnicity at a county level, and only if you know which zipcodes to look for, e.g. 33605, 33610, would you figure out the cases occurring in predominately Black neighborhoods. I am grateful for others who have created dashboards to track this data.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research and author of “How to Be an AntiRacist”, and “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”, wrote a series of essays in The Atlantic about “the urgent need to gather racial and ethnic demographic data to understand the outbreak and protect vulnerable communities” that led to a collaboration to create The COVID Racial Data Tracker. The numbers are stark, the percentage of Black people in the US dying from COVID-19 are highest of all races. Their data shows that Black or African Americans account for 16% of Florida’s population, and 21% of deaths. In other places, the difference is more. In the District of Colombia, for example, they account for 47% of the population, but 74% of deaths. In Alabama, they account for 27% of the population, but 43% of deaths. In Georgia, they account for 31% of the population, but 45% of deaths. In Kansas, they account for 6% of the population, but 19% of deaths. In Maryland, they account for 29% of the population, but 41% of deaths. In Michigan, they account for 14% of the population, but 41% of deaths. In Missouri, they account for 12% of the population, but 34% of deaths. In Illinois, they account for 14% of the population, but 28% of deaths. These numbers make me numb, depressed, and angry. These numbers, however, have mobilized many of us in the academy to consider how our work contributes to these numbers.

Taken from The COVID Racial Data Tracker at the Atlantic in collaboration with the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Accessed August 1st, 2020.

“It dawned on me that my greatest risk is not COVID-19. It’s the color of my skin,” said Dr. Clyde W. Yancy while discussing the “disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities” during a COVID-19 and Black Communities Workshop sponsored by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Mathematics (NASEM) Roundtable on Black Men and Black Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine launched in December 2019. Dr. Yancy, the Vice Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and the Chief of Cardiology in the Department of Medicine at Northwestern University, is a Black man. During his presentation he layered COVID-19 data by zipcode for Chicago, the city where he works, with Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) data from the Center for Disease Control. The SVI presents census track data in 4 larger categories: 1) Socio-economic status (Poverty, Unemployed, Per Capita Income, No High School Diploma), 2) Household composition/disability (Aged 65 and Over, Aged 17 and Younger, Single-parent Household, Aged 5 and over with a Disability), 3) Race/ethnicity/language (Minority, English Language Ability), and 4) Housing/transportation (Multi-unit, Mobile Homes, Crowding, No Vehicle, Group Quarters). As one might expect, areas of higher social vulnerability reflected higher incidences of COVID-19. Zoning into zipcode data he said, “It’s been startling to see that 50% of the infections and 70% of the deaths attributable to COVID-19 involve blacks. But what’s more sobering, is that all of this is concentrated in just five communities in Chicago. Southside really makes the argument that place is driving this burden, more so than race, but it’s race that determines where people live…the pernicious influence of racism usually explains why certain communities are so devoid of the appropriate resources.”

Dr. Clyde W. Yancy presenting at the COVID-19 and Black Communities Workshop sponsored by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Mathematics.

He stated,“COVID-19 I believe becomes the base case now, that really exposes how deep the social divide is, and how consequential the social determinants of health are on health outcomes in vulnerable communities.” Links were made from early childhood exposure associated with less than healthy behaviors to increases in early burden of disease, and the notion that the built environment can either advantage or disadvantage health was emphasized. During the discussion, Dr. Camara Jones, cautioned that “biologizing” the disease at an individual level averts from a systems level perspective that is needed given the types of essential jobs Black people have, the type of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) provided for those jobs, and the high rates amongst incarcerated and unhoused populations to name a few.

Dr. Jones, a Senior Fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, got to the source of the problem, and presented under the title, “Racism.” She defined racism as a “system structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is called race),” and presented three different types of racism: Institutionalized or structural racism (e.g. a highway cut through your thriving Black community, causing disruption, and increasing air pollution and stormwater runoff), Personally-mediated (e.g. a teacher who thinks I cannot learn, and places me in a separate class), and Internalized (e.g. I’m not good enough for the local university like the University of South Florida even though I live 5 miles away). She recognized the power of this COVID-19 Black Lives Matter convergence moment, and emphasized that we must continually address how foundational racism is in the history of the US and how profoundly that impacts people of color.

As a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the oldest engineering discipline, and as someone who collaborates with anthropologists and with members of a majority Black community in Tampa, East Tampa, I too am learning more about the impact of anti-Black racism on our built infrastructure. Our water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, power plants, and highways, are usually close to or within communities of color in the US. Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of Environmental Justice, says on his website that, “America is segregated and so is pollution…Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being.” In 2015 I learned about a highway expansion project proposed for Tampa, commonly referred to as TBX or NoTBX depending on whether you wanted it or not. It would impact the western and southern parts of East Tampa as Interstates 275 and 4 now form those borders, and without knowing anything about Tampa, you could probably look at the SVI for Hillsborough county and narrow down where East Tampa is located.

Colleagues Drs. Cheryl Rodriguez and Beverly Ward documented the resistance to this project through the eyes of two Black women leaders, Mrs. Evangeline Best and Mrs. Lena Young in “Making Black Communities Matter: Race, Space, and Resistance in the Urban South.” I’ve had the pleasure of working with these community leaders, and cannot thank them enough for sharing their time, knowledge, and space with me, my students and my colleagues. For many years Mrs. Best served as Chairperson of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership, and introduced me to projects that ranged from education to stormwater to workforce development to housing to activities for seniors. Her bus tours around East Tampa would point out places like the Principal’s house situated next to the school. I’m only now beginning to understand the extent of initiatives the community was working on, the larger context of that process, and am relieved that Mrs. Best is chronicling this right now, even if it’s something designed by her daughters to keep her indoors. Across the I-275, in Tampa Heights, Mrs. Young was organizing for NoTBX, tending a community garden, and leading yoga classes at the Tampa Heights Civic Association. She’d always ask whether I was caring for myself.

East Tampa would include zipcodes 33605, 33610, 33604. The Tampa Bay Times has been publishing information on number of persons positive for the virus in a readily accessible way; Florida does not release deaths by zipcode so a map like that shown by Dr. Yancy during his presentation is not possible. For 33605, “545 people in the zip code have contracted coronavirus. That’s 3,122 per 100,000 residents, or 1 in every 32 people.” Further north, where persons depend on the interstate for commuting to the city core, a zipcode like 33647 has 1 in every 85 people positive. Still high, but not as high as those in East Tampa. This goes back to the concern, even fear, expressed by my colleagues who will be teaching laboratory classes in the fall. One that I now hold because I am Black, in addition to my earlier concern more about my own health because I have heart disease. As Black faculty and students who socialize in and with Black people in Black communities, navigating the in-person classroom environment with utmost care becomes the challenge as the data shows the higher risk of dying from COVID-19 if Black in America.

The importance of working with, and within Black communities was a strong message sent through the six hour National Academies COVID-19 workshop. This is a welcome message for those of us who have been doing this for some time, and who would like to see more support from our academic disciplines, institutions, and professions. USF is a Carnegie Classified Community Engaged University, a unique position for an R1: Doctoral University — i.e. one with very high research activity, and this was inculcated into my practice very soon after starting as an assistant professor in Tampa. Dr. Jones advised that we seize the moment and do not deny racism. That we uncover it, and address it, to stop the loss of Black life and deleterious impact on affected Black families, and to stop sapping our national energy through the waste of human resources. Dr. Yancy said that we need herd immunity to negative social impacts, and a correction to the mal distribution of resources. We must do things like walk with GirlTrek, and be able to do so where we have sidewalks as the ETCRP has had to fund, while breathing clean air instead of more car exhaust from expanded highways like TBX. I hope that as faculty we are prepared for students whose courage and questioning at this time, have undeniably led us to these discussions that we are having today. One such student is the soon to be Dr. Maya Carrasquillo from USF’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, whose dissertation arrived in my mailbox a month ago with a new title that made me proud, made me smile, and made me cry, “Black Lives Matter in Engineering, Too! An Environmental Justice Approach towards Equitable Decision-Making for Stormwater Management in African American Communities.”

educate.engage.enhance. Environmental Engineer from Guyanese. Professor at USF. Coral restorer supporter. Afro-Caribbean American. All views are my own.

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