When America catches a cold, the Black community catches the flu. What issues will coronavirus bring?

Posted Mar 31, 2020

By Charles F. Boyer

The rising concern is that in the midst of this pandemic, not only will the most pressing racial justice issues take a back seat but that even more problematic racial justice issues will emerge, the Rev. Charles Boyer says.

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Salvation and Social Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with the Black faith, civil rights, and urban communities to advocate for racial justice in Trenton. In these extraordinary times, we are determined to efficiently and effectively work in the community to achieve shared goals and equity. It has been that determination that put us in the midst of various serious conversations with our constituency.

The rising concern is that in the midst of this pandemic, not only will the most pressing racial justice issues take a back seat but that even more problematic racial justice issues will emerge. The paramount question is, “What will be the racial impact of the pandemic?” Racial justice advocates must be present to force the state to deal with even more difficult questions in the midst of the ones they are already facing.

It is often said that when America catches a cold the Black community catches the flu or pneumonia. Think about that. Black America, for instance, is always nearly double the unemployment rate as white Americans even when unemployment is low. Now that America, and most specifically New Jersey, has caught COVID-19 what has the Black community caught? As we pondered these questions, we began to understand certain priorities the state must be dealing with.

We applaud Gov. Phil Murphy and the legislature for quickly pushing through emergency legislation to shore up our state as much as possible. But even with these valiant efforts, Black communities will experience disproportionate fallout from this crisis. Therefore, racial justice priorities are more critical than ever. We must bring attention to political leadership of the potential blind spots that Black communities are too often situated in.

For instance, Black mothers were already underserved in the health care system. The strain of the pandemic has put on the health system will severely affect the health of Black mothers. We must look at how this will affect the existing health disparities in Black communities. Many Black people do not have primary care and aren’t able to make routine doctor visits. Because we are far less likely to have coverage and access to quality care, we use the emergency room.

Homeownership will further decline as people lose employment furthering the racial wealth gap. Historically, when relief funds were distributed, Black people have been denied relief. We only need to look at Hurricane Sandy to see that of the state’s shore towns, Atlantic City had an extraordinary 80% of its applicants denied. While others were rebuilding their lives, Black people remained devastated and have yet to recover.

Several of us have been working to promote energy efficiency programs in Black communities. This strategy is the most direct way to include us in the green revolution and most importantly the “green” economic benefits through savings that are desperately needed. Energy bills are one of our hardest burdens. Those bills will only get higher as we are forced to stay in our homes and self isolate to prevent illness from the virus.

Undoubtedly, the inequity in our apartheid-level segregated schools is glaring now that we see how difficult it is to do homeschooling in certain school districts where families don’t have the technological tools or home internet access. The impact the pandemic will have on Black children’s education will be incalculable.

Finally, as a state, we must release vulnerable people incarcerated. Now is the time to seriously consider compassionate release and letting those go who are nonviolent and others who have served extremely long sentences. Some of those incarcerated are over 50 years old and no longer pose a risk. The prison population makes social distancing very difficult without reducing the head count. The Department of Corrections and the Parole Board should let people go now whose sentences are up in the next two to three years. Additionally, the state must stop putting new youth behind bars and let those go who are due to be stepped down. In addition, greater resources will have to be put into reentry, prevention, and intervention organizations to be able to support these individuals in the community.

This list of concerns doesn’t even scratch the surface of the racial inequities that will explode as a result of the coronavirus. We wish we could say we had the answers, the perfect strategy to deal with these inevitable challenges. We do not. But what we do know is when we engage communities with these questions they step up, problem solve, and advocate for their deliverance. The coronavirus is no different.

 

The Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer is the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and founding director of Salvation and Social Justice.

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