The Current Moment

I intended to write today about new data on kids, pregnancy and COVID. And I will, later this week. But it seems impossible not to acknowledge the protests, the tragedy of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others before.

It is appropriate, natural to be angry — angry and sad — in these moments of horrific violence. And to wonder what we can do, and to want to protest and donate and speak out and say more. But in part because of the level of violence and injustice, they can also seem a little distant, a little foreign, and one can be a little tempted to think “Well, that’s just an extreme example.”

Which is why the Christian Cooper story, alongside the George Floyd one, is so telling. In case this one hasn’t come across your radar, Christian Cooper is a  serious birdwatcher who was the victim of some tremendously racist behavior by a woman with an off-leash dog in Central Park. That story doesn’t end in tragedy for him, but if you watch the video what becomes clear is the casual, everyday, knee-jerk racism.

If I, a white woman, asked someone to leash their dog in the same situation, she might yell at me (although probably not) but there is simply no way she would call the cops, or say things like “I’m going to tell them a WHITE WOMAN is threatening me.” And because this would never happen, I wouldn’t think about it. I would not hesitate to ask her to leash her dog. Or to do any of the million things that people of color hesitate to do.

This everyday racism spills into everything. My work focuses on maternity and infancy. We see it there. Mortality rates for women of color are much, much higher than for white women. Infant mortality rates are lower for white infants than others. Rates of preterm birth are much, much higher — probably twice as high — for women of color than white women.

Some of this reflects differences in income and education (which themselves likely reflect underlying racial issues) but evidence suggests race is also an independent risk factor. When Serena Williams gave birth — one of the most famous women in the world — she developed a pulmonary embolism. She struggled to get doctors and nurses to listen to her and she nearly died. Could that have happened if she was white? Of course. Is it less likely it would have? I’d say yes.

There is evidence which points to structural racism — in this case, defined as state-level inequality in education or income across race — as an independent risk factor for infant mortality. That is, conditional on a particular level of education or income of the mom, black infants are more likely to die if they live in a place with greater racial inequality. The racial inequality itself seems to matter.

And COVID; racial inequality is present here, as well. The death rate from COVID among African-Americans is 2.4 times as high as whites. This really isn’t getting a lot of attention. It’s almost like everyone just assumes this would be true, so doesn’t bother to mention it. But this means that while the African-American population is 13% of the US, they are 25% of COVID deaths.

It is not completely clear why Black people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but it is likely a combination of more risk factors, worse health care and higher infection rates due to crowded living conditions and job circumstances.

So, yes, it seems right to me to be angry and sad now. But also more right to be angry and sad and trying to change things all the time. I worry that we galvanize around particular incidents, and fail to recognize or react to the every day.  We should not wait for moments of extreme to change things or to call them out for being wrong. 

What can we do, beyond protests? 

In the immediate moment, there are places to donate (there are a few linked at the bottom of this post).  In thinking more broadly, there are resources for engaging with the problem of structural racism.  I’d point to more or less anything Professor Tricia Rose has done (see here or here for a couple of things to look at).  And stepping even further back, it may be useful for many of us (I include myself here) to step back and reflect on what it means to be an ally; here is one thoughtful guide to that.

One of the most extraordinary things about working at Brown University is the undergraduates, and in writing this post and thinking through these issues I’m enormously grateful to a large number of my current and former undergrads for their help. In many ways, I am sad they have to live through these times and we didn’t make it better for them.  But they do make me hopeful that better things may come. If we all work for them. 

Donation Opportunities

  • Northstar Health Collective: a Minnesota-based medical organization that has been working to provide support for protests and reduce the incidence of COVID-19 in minority communities

  • Minnesota Freedom Fund: an organization providing cash bail in disproportionately targeted low-income, minority communities

  • Black Visions Collective: a Minneapolis-based organization aimed at generating awareness about the kinds of issues plaguing Black communities across the Twin Cities metropolitan area

  • Reclaim the Block: an organization aimed at holistically uplifting marginalized communities in Minneapolis through housing support, violence prevention, youth programs, and emergency mental health response teams

  • ACLU, if you want to go more general.


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