Today marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. I was six years old, but the faces of the first responders rushing up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom have never grown fuzzy in my mind. I never got the chance to thank those men, but now, more than ever, I wish I had.
In the midst of COVID-19, paramedics, first responders, nurses, and doctors are saving lives and putting themselves at risk in the name of humanity. My mother was a surgeon. Each time I watch a video of New York City erupting into applause at 7 p.m., I wish she could hear it. Around the world, the strength of medical professionals — and the essential employees continuing to work — is nothing short of remarkable.
Institutional failings, however, cast a shadow over the individual bravery of these women and men. As more and more cities collect data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, it has become apparent that COVID-19 is taking a staggering number of black lives. In Louisiana, black residents make up 32 percent of the population, yet account for 70 percent of the state’s deaths. Cities such as Chicago and D.C. and states such as Illinois and Michigan report similar tallies.
As the virus cuts short many black lives, two realities become essential to remember. First, COVID-19 did not create the systemic challenges that increase black people’s vulnerability to the disease. But now that these widespread inequalities have been brought (yet again) to mainstream attention, widespread affirmation of black life must follow.
Precarity plagues Black American life, as inadequate access to healthcare and healthy food and increased exposure to trauma and pollution take their toll. These systematic factors lead black Americans to suffer from higher rates of hypertension, asthma, diabetes, obesity — many of the preconditions that increase susceptibility to the virus.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams raised the racial issues of COVID-19 by speaking out about his own struggles with high blood pressure and heart and respiratory ailments. Discussing the disparities before they were front page news, he said, “I represent that legacy of growing up poor and black in America.”
These disparities do not surprise black people. Black Americans were not able to forget about these institutional barriers to health and prosperity while the rest of the country did — COVID-19 is simply a “newsworthy” exacerbation of everyday reality. It has taken a pandemic and the disproportionate death rate of Black Americans for white people and leaders to even acknowledge the material conditions created by factors such as segregation and inadequate funding.
President Trump, the “nation’s doctor” Anthony Fauci, and Boston mayor Marty Walsh have offered statements attesting to the crisis’s disproportionate effect on black lives. Fauci, who is committed to trying to return the country to normal by November, seemed resigned to the issue of Black death, stating, “It’s very sad. There is nothing to do about it right now … ”
Fauci is wrong. Throwing one’s hands up is not an adequate response. The need for systemic overhauls addressing the inequality of access and care is clear, and those overhauls will not come without a committed effort to reaffirm the value of Black life.
There is so much to be done. Insisting that we are literally counted, as Julia and Shannon Chaffers ’22 did in a recent column calling on officials to collect data on racial demographics, is one way to start, one way for Black people to assert their voices in this time where the historical and societal devaluation of Black lives is again evident. Yet solely collecting and analyzing data does no justice to the humanity of those who have lost their lives.
My mom passed away from melanoma. With radiant skin darker than mine, her chances of developing skin cancer were low. Her death was an anomaly — as was much of her life. She went to Yale when she was 16 and became one of the first black woman surgical residents at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was also one of the first surgeons to take maternity leave. In one sense, she fought marginalization in all aspects of her life, running up against the intersecting walls of racism and sexism in education, the medical field, and our white neighborhood. Yet, defying the odds even in death allowed her a certain kind of dignity. She is not reduced to a statistic, as statistics do not represent her story.
The black people who have died from COVID-19 deserve dignity and visibility as individuals, not only as numbers. Ronda Hatch of Chicago, Lawrence Riley of Milwaukee, and Leilani Jordan of Washington D.C. are among the thousands of black people who have died. They were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. Undoubtably some were poor, some LGBTQ+, some undocumented. The data matters. Hopefully it helps us address the institutional difficulties many of them faced. But their lives as lived matter even more. We may not be able to capture all of their stories, but by reviving the conviction of the Black Lives Matter movement, we can approach reports on the disproportionate toll of black people dying with a sense of regard for the person lost and the community grieving them.
In addition to statistics, we must invest in black life. Any action insisting Black people matter is necessary because it directly contradicts the logic of white supremacy that allowed Black communities to become so drastically underserved in the first place.
Supporting one’s community by providing grocery services to those affected by limited food pantry hours like Melody McCurtis and Danell Cross are doing in Milwaukee is another way of rejecting the pervasive myth of the dispensability of black life. We need more individuals and institutions to reject this myth.
The first person I had to say goodbye to was the first person who knew me in this world. Ten years after my mom passed, a classmate of mine, Casey Dunne, died. Less than two years later, during my first week at Princeton, one of my best friends, McCrae Williams, died. I think of them all each day. Their deaths were all statistical outliers, due to rare ailments or freak accidents. Lying outside the realm of statistical possibility, I’ve often asked — why them?
No one could give me an answer. For years, I thought this made it all worse. As I think of the thousands of Black people mourning loved ones now, I doubt pointing to institutional disregard and devaluation provides them with any solace. But by addressing and changing those systemic patterns, we can help prevent others from enduring the same treatment.
Death has punctuated many eras of my life. I’ve spent lots of my life grieving. It is a lonely process only now made lonelier that ceremonies commemorating it are not possible, and neither are the daily routines of work and school that carry us through it. Despite the heartbreak felt in the worldwide diffusion of death, we cannot diffuse responsibility as to why certain people are dying at disproportionately higher rates than others.
We must call the disparity what it is — institutional racism — and double down on our efforts to express to the families and communities disproportionately affected that their lives matter, despite the overwhelming evidence that American society does not agree. Black lives matter today as I mourn my mother, and families and communities mourn the over 130,930 people lost to COVID-19 worldwide. Black lives matter always.
Rachel Kennedy is a junior from Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.