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  • By Lisa Brody

Racism impact: No longer a Black/White issue

When we think of racism, most of us think of it as a Black/White issue. But racism can, and does, affect people of all colors, races and genders. It is a result of decades, if not centuries, of learned and ingrained behaviors that have influenced our conduct and responses. Whether Black or of Middle Eastern descent, Asian, Hispanic or a combination, we live in a diverse world. Our belief systems need to catch up. According to experts, much of it is entrenched in our psyches, what is often termed unconscious or implicit bias. It is described as prejudices that influence our thinking unknowingly and our reactions to events and information. It’s often reflexive – grabbing our purse or bag and crossing the street when a young Black or Brown man is walking down the sidewalk towards us; the experience many Blacks describe as “DWB” – driving while Black – of being routinely stopped by police in predominately white communities when a White person in a similar situation would not be; all things being equal, bank loans are more often approved for White applicants than for Black or other minority applicants. Racism leads to health inequities, education disparities, housing segregation and employment imbalances. It’s a little like the chicken and egg question of which came first, because all of those issues also can, and do, lead to racist and economic stratification. On August 5, 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared racism a public health crisis, ordered implicit bias training for all state employees, and created a state advisory council, the Black Leadership Advisory Council, to focus on issues affecting Black people, led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. “We have a lot of work to do to eliminate the systemic racism that Black Americans have experienced for generations,” Whitmer said at the press conference when announcing the public health crisis initiative, noting that Blacks in Michigan are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White residents because of unequal economic and health care treatment as well as racism. “This is something we need to get right as a state and as a nation,” said Gilchrist, who has lost at least 23 relatives and friends to COVID-19. While Michigan as a whole, notably southeast Michigan, was hit hard by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and is beginning a dangerous second wave, people of color, particularly those from the African American communities, were hit extremely hard, with a mortality rate 4.5 times higher than the rate for Whites and 7.5 times higher than for Hispanic/Latinx residents, according to AMP research lab statistics reported to the state of Michigan. Blacks make up about 14 percent of the population in Michigan – but have accounted for 41 percent of the coronavirus deaths in the state. However, Gilchrist pointed out that in the last couple of months, with the state heavily prioritizing disparities in the COVID crisis, “only eight percent of infections and 10 percent of deaths are affecting the Black community. Our interventions have made a difference.” In addition, since May of this year, the number of people who have fallen into poverty in the United States has grown by eight million people, according to a study by Columbia University – an increase of eight percent since January 2020. Black and Hispanic people are more than twice as likely as Whites to be poor, data indicated, with child poverty rising at a rapid rate. By the U.S. government’s standards, a family of four is considered to be poor if their annual income falls below $28,170. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams wrote, “Racism is killing Black Americans – both by fueling police violence against them and by propelling adverse socioeconomic conditions that contribute to serious health issues… George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers is a visceral reminder of a reality we have come to know all too well: Racism is a public health crisis. Police violence kills Black Americans at nearly three times the rate of White Americans… The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inequities even further,” noting that people of color make up a disproportionate number of essential workers who have been at higher risk of catching the virus – which if they do get, they’re more likely to receive worse care than Whites, as well has having dangerous underlying health conditions which can make COVID-19 more deadly. “When you look at the numbers beyond COVID, for African Americans, they have the worst health conditions – diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, high blood pressure – because of diet and poverty, the stressors for living in poverty,” said Dr. Khari Brown, associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University with a specialization in race, religion and politics. “Living and eating healthy, exercising, is a function of class and education, not just of the individual’s class but of your social class and being in a network.” He explained that we are all in numerous “networks” – friendship networks, networks of our children’s friends, a neighborhood network of where we live, professional networks, religious network, and others. “If you’re in a network with a knowledgeable group, you become more knowledgeable. It’s one of the reasons African Americans have some of the worst health and worst health outcomes. They live in poor communities with poor access to health. You have poor individuals that are living in poor neighborhoods – they’re in poor friendship networks – eating healthy and exercising is a function of class,” Brown said. “It’s one more variable. It’s race and class and place. It’s where you are. If you see people running, biking, kayaking – it looks fun. You may want to try it. It’s exposure. Place matters.” An executive at McClaren Oakland Hospital in Pontiac confirmed that they see higher incidences of hypertension, diabetes and sickle cell anemia in persons of color, but not limited to people of color. Poverty is the greater indicator of health issues. “Poverty hits Whites as well as Blacks, with high numbers of White people dying in their 40s and 50s. They have multiple co-morbid conditions – they have vascular problems, maybe the result of diabetes and heart disease. Regardless of color, it’s inherent in how you’re brought up, your lifestyle, how you eat. If you don’t see a doctor regularly, and don’t have your health care monitored, you can be young or old, White or Black. We treat patients equally whoever comes through the door.” More Blacks live in poverty than the general population. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 14 percent of Michigan residents live in poverty. The percentage of Blacks who live in poverty is about 27 percent; Hispanics, about 20 percent; and Whites, about 11 percent. According to state data in 2018, African American infants are about three to four times more likely than Whites to die in their first year of life, and African Americans are one and a half times more likely to die of heart disease than Whites. “It is not enough to simply label an injustice. We have to formally take steps to replace injustice with justice,” Gilchrist said. He said by the governor declaring racism a public health crisis, it recognizes the impact of racism and prejudice on the environment individuals live in, which have led to worse health outcomes for people of color. It also allows for the ability to unlock the potential of every state department and agency to take a look at itself, the data it collects and analyzes and to see how they can respond better as they move forward. “We have developed a program to connect people to doctors to manage not only their COVID diagnosis, but also asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other health issues,” Gilchrist said. “We have to have a comprehensive approach to managing not only public health, but also those social determinents of health, and break down obstacles to economic mobility, such as wiping out records for minor incarcerations. I’m very proud of our record. We believe people deserve a chance in Michigan to be their best selves.” Pamela L. Pugh, health chair and education chair for Michigan NAACP, said she believes the governor was spurred to action by a campaign led by civil rights leaders, racial and social justice activists, public health and public policy leaders who, on June 19, 2020 – Juneteenth – called for racism to be declared a public health pandemic in Michigan. “The Michigan State Conference NAACP and Black Lives Matter Michigan jointly called for efforts aimed at compelling Michigan decision makers to declare racism as a public health pandemic; developing policy language and model practices necessary to abolish systemic racism which greatly contributes to health inequities; and advocating for statewide adoption of model policies and practices,” Pugh said. “We looked at issues driving it. “We are done dying. The stress of racism itself dysregulates or suppresses the immune system making those experiencing it to be more likely to have poor quality of life and to be more susceptible to contracting or succumbing to illness and disease. This chronic stress is compounded by African Americans being more likely to live in neighborhoods where there is aging housing, crumbling infrastructure, disinvestment in businesses and schools and which have had clean air and safe water choked from them,” Pugh said in a speech on June 19. “We are now coming together as a collective, to give demand and guidance so that those charged with protecting the health and well-being of all Michigan residents are held accountable for possessing the wherewithal, courage, and appropriate urgency to move beyond symbolic gestures to enacting policies and programmatic actions to disrupt and gut out racism which drives inequities.” “We are declaring racism as a public health crisis not only as race serves as a predictor of health but also experiencing racism can lead to negative mental and physical health impacts,” said Andrea Pugh-Kelley, Michigan NAACP NextGen. “The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery struck us at a time in which African Americans are dying from COVID-19 nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. Just as racism, these are structural and not genetic issues. Unfortunately, most public health professionals like myself predicted the racial disparities of COVID-19 based on structural discrimination and lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare in communities of color and low socioeconomic status. Systemic racism has been seamlessly woven into our society. We see it expressed in urban education, housing, banking, professional sports, workforce, and the list goes on. Policy and reform are necessary interventions to address racism as a public health crisis.” Pugh was previously the chief public health director for the city of Flint during its water crisis, and she sees parallels to the COVID-19 crisis. “When there is a total denial of science. When the health of Black and Brown people is a trade off to economics, to the rush to opening up of the economy at the expense of Black, Brown, and low income people, especially,” she said. Pugh said she was on the ground for NAACP in the spring of this year when “lots of Black and Brown people couldn’t get tested, and were being turned away with symptoms. They should have been told to quarantine when they were sent home and to contact trace so we could see how and where it was impacting our communities. We also heard from health professionals in Detroit, at hospitals in Detroit, who were told they could not get the K95 masks because it would be a ‘bad look,’ until OSHA proceeded and intervened,” obtaining the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). She relayed that an auto executive was dismayed that the health department for the county where one of their plants is located had failed to communicate with the auto company that workers had COVID, “and it was spreading throughout the auto plant. “I was on weekly calls with the White House where they were saying testing was happening, that the PPE was there. The White House was lying – but on the local level, local health departments weren’t using their professional judgement. “Is the government responsible? Hell yes they’re responsible,” Pugh said. “Someone should have been contact tracing. Infectious disease doctors should have been doing testing and providing protective gear to health care workers. “We were not getting out the right message at first in our community,” Pugh emphasized. “We were told initially it was not necessary to wear masks, to be tested. When people see our community they see us immediately because of the color of our skin. It was quite disheartening to see all of this. When you have public health interfacing with politics, public health has to speak up with urgency – and that wasn’t happening” The Black Leadership Advisory Council which Gilchrist is leading was created by an executive order from Whitmer for an advisory body in the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to develop, review, and recommend policies and actions designed to eradicate and prevent discrimination and racial inequity in Michigan. Along with Gilchrist, 16 individuals were to be appointed by the governor representing Black leadership in various fields, such as economics, law, public policy, education, health and wellness, technology, the environment (including environmental justice) and agriculture, community safety and preparedness, arts and culture, and media and communications, with at least one member to be an immigrant, and at least one member aged 18 to 35. Members are to serve three year terms. Among the council’s objectives are to identify state laws, or gaps in state law, that create or perpetuate inequities, with the goal of promoting economic growth and wealth equity for the Black community. Gilchrist said the state received a number of excellent applications for this “first of a kind body, and we will be announcing the members of the advisory council soon.” He anticipates it will help empower the state to make recommendations to move forward to remove issues where racism played a role. “Race does not cause disparities – racism does,” explained Agustin Fuentes, anthropology professor at Princeton University. “It is because the way racism works is bias-based. Someone’s social race is backed up on our system of power. It takes off the table the issue of individual bigotry. Racism is the result of systematic discrimination and oppression.” He emphasized that the importance of that is because “it takes reverse racism off the table. It’s really dangerous, harmful and violent. The reason this perspective is so important is because it does not come from biology, it comes from systematic discrimination, not from nature – but from systems and policies, and that means it’s changeable.” “People often define racism as disliking or mistreating others on the basis of race. That definition is wrong,” said Steven O. Roberts, assistant professor of psychology, Stanford University and co-director, Social Cognition and Development Lab. “Racism is a system of advantage based on race. It is a hierarchy. It is a pandemic. Racism is do deeply embedded within U.S. minds and U.S. society that it is virtually impossible to escape.” New York Times bestseller Caste, by Isabel Wilkinson, compellingly compares the socioeconomic strata in the United States post-slavery with the caste system in India, noting “The dominant caste devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called eugenics worked to justify the renewed debasement...The idea of race,’ anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote, ‘was in fact the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior class.’… Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like...Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” She said because racism and casteism are interwoven in America, it can be hard to separate the two, with casteism the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, even if you are in a disadvantaged or marginalized caste. Because someone can always be lower. And the fear of equality is based in a fear by some Whites of losing power. “The real fear is of change and equality,” said Fuentes. “This country has run for so long on systemic racism that if you get rid of that, things will change, and those in power are afraid of change.” Alvin Tillery, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, expounds further. “First of all, flip your causation around. Racism is the cause of health disparities, economics, housing, crime – all of those things. Racism is the result of our founding since 1789 until 1964,” Tillery explained, when the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. “We were a racial dictatorship, where the color of your skin determined if you could vote, where you could go to school, for how long, if you could immigrate, if you could enter the military, where you could get a job. All of these are the legacies of the racial dictatorship.” “These are not human biological categories if you map any biological markers,” Fuentes said. “Variations are not a reflection of biology. But – race is very real. It is the social, political and historical processes that got us to where we are today, and that’s very real to those who inhabit them. “In the U.S., it matters when you walk down the street if you are White, Black, Asian or Latinx. Because of racism, which is the systematic discrimination based upon social categories of race, then you see the economic, political and health disparities and the discrimination.” Fuentes sees solutions coming not from the federal government – “The place it is not happening is the federal government. The executive branch is actually doubling down. But for the first time ever, solutions are coming from corporations and institutions, whether universities, corporations, museums. There is an active movement to look internally at their history and current realities and do something about them, not just bias training and hiring. It’s about changing culture and the way they function and getting real diversity and inclusion at every level.” As Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, assistant professor of health behavior and health education, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, pointed out, racism, discrimination, health and economic disparities have not only impacted the Black population, but whoever has been impacted by the issues. In metro Detroit, 70 percent of the population is White, 23 percent is African American, 6.2 percent is Hispanic, and 3.3 percent is Asian. The city of Detroit is 78.6 percent Black and 14.6 percent White, according to 2019 estimates of the U.S. Census. “In Detroit, when there was an entire wall that prevented education, home ownership (redlining), that was contrived to prevent their achievements and is responsible for that gap, it would be quite irresponsible to create that gap and then just shrug your shoulders,” Anderson said. “When we see these gaps in achievement or education, it’s incredibly important to think about why and how it happened.” She said that beyond coronavirus, hypertension, diabetes and other health care issues, discrimination affects the mental health trajectory of adolescents of color. “It’s not just the personal incidents of racism, but every time we don’t see someone like us, when they’re not reflected on TV, on a screen that looks like us, in society, it affects their mental health through depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, academic achievement. If we want our children to be the best they can be then how can we be okay with racism and how it shapes them?” Princeton’s Fuentes said a common White statement of “‘I don’t see color, I judge by the individual,’ is actually a racist statement because it denies the systemic bias and very real process of racism.” It is the thesis of Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller, How To Be An Anti-Racist. “To say I don’t see you as Black, I just see you as a person is to deny the history of systemic racism in the United States. You’re not acknowledging that society views everyone as Black, White, Asian, Latinx,” Fuentes explained. “It’s to be complicit in a racist system. If you’re not actively being anti-racist, you’re supporting the racist system. This is not some lefty theory of discrimination. We’re not arguing that everyone is the same, it’s that how people are treated is unfair and not an accurate representation.” “Michigan is probably the most segregated state in the country by race,” said Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard, who co-authored a study with John Goddeeris comparing Black/White earning differences in September 2020. He said that if “zero on the index means completely integrated, race doesn’t matter, and 100 is total segregation and separation between the races, somewhere in the middle the percentage of people who would have to move in order for race not to matter, to have a totally integrated community – metro Detroit is at 74 percent.” Of the 233 metro areas he and Goddeeris looked at, “29 of the most segregated places by race, 15 are in the Great Lakes region, and six are in Michigan,” he said. Detroit was the fourth most segregated city, with only Milwaukee, New York City and Chicago more segregated; Muskegon, Niles, Flint, Saginaw and Grand Rapids were also in the top 30 most segregated cities. “You do not have to have Jim Crow laws to be segregated,” Ballard said. “Redlining, white flight, informal segregation – all of that has economic effects that lead to the lack of education, the lack of opportunities, the lack of good health care, food deserts, and co-dependents, such as the lack of health insurance. It leads to a whole bunch of social problems piled upon each other.” Interestingly, Ballard noted that income inequality decreased dramatically between 1928 and 1944, driven largely by policy changes affecting education, labor relations and wage-setting institutions, financial regulations and taxes – many of which were reversed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1920s through 1950s, Blacks headed north in droves – called the Great Migration – seeking and finding jobs in factories in the auto, steel and other industrial industries that paid well and did not require higher education. “Forty years ago, typical Black workers earned more in Michigan than anywhere else. Our economy was a juggernaut – especially with the auto industry. But our economy has sagged since 1970 or so,” Ballard said. “The payoff to higher education, especially with a college education, has really paid off, and over the long haul, Blacks were denied any education, especially in the south, but if you hold constant with 12 years of education for Whites and 12 years of education for Blacks, the payoff is bigger with Whites because of the perceived difference in the quantity and quality of education. Therefore, Blacks have never caught up with Whites. “That means there has been occupational segregation – it explains the differences in occupation, where a White person is more likely to be in a higher-paid occupation; residential segregation – it’s why our schools are segregated, because we organize our K-12 education by where we live, and since we live in a society that is profoundly segregated, our educational systems are segregated,” Ballard said. In Oakland County, Whites make up 71.5 percent of the population, with Blacks 13.8 percent; Asians 7.79 percent; Hispanics 3.21 percent of the population. Over 93 percent are U.S. citizens. According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, 48 percent of immigrants in Oakland County arrived in the U.S. before 2000, and since 2010, the number of immigrants has increased by 17.5 percent, with 59 percent arriving from Asia; 20 percent coming from Europe; and 18.5 percent coming from Latin America. Oakland County Board of Commission Chairman Dave Woodward noted, “Oakland County is so rich with diversity.” Unlike the African American community, which has long had NAACP and now Black Lives Matter, many ethnic communities may have business chambers or organizations, but do not have strong advocacy institutions representing them but Oakland County is starting to address the issue on a broader basis for all non-white populations. On July 1, Oakland County Executive David Coulter introduced Robin Carter-Cooper as the county’s first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion executive. According to Woodward, her job is to look at the “full gamut – taking a look at the full diversity of our full operations at the county level, with the hope to eventually provide support and tools to local communities.” Carter-Cooper will be the person at the county to vet and identify structural racism and determine the steps to improve, Woodward said, for all diverse communities – “from Arab Americans, Chaldeans, Hispanics, Asians, women, LGBTQ. This is very intentional to address systemic racism and make Oakland County better.” In addition, county executive David Coulter announced the formation of a new diversity council to work with Carter-Cooper, to examine county operations. “We have to be willing to move forward,” Woodward said. “The Asian American and Hispanic American movements are working to be at the same place, at the same starting gate,” said Jo Reger, professor and chairman of the sociology department, Oakland University. “Whites are at the startling line or a few steps ahead of other groups because of privilege, which means having greater access and opportunity versus those who don’t have that. It leads to a gap in opportunity. Often we forget how that plays into things today. There’s often a lack of acknowledgement by people of privilege of that inequality.” She used the example of the GI bill after World War II, which provided a wide range of benefits to returning soldiers, including stipends that covered tuition for college education and made low interest mortgages available. While it did not specifically exclude Black Americans, as Northwestern University’s Alvin Tillery pointed out, “the military was segregated, so those veterans were primarily White. It was an unintended consequence. The suburbs that popped up became bastions of White segregation.” “We often forget how that plays into today,” Reger said. When we don’t remember history, she said, we ignore that inequality. “We don’t recognize why they can’t achieve these things. Why they’re having a different kind of struggle than we’re having. For COVID, it’s not just a lack of health care, it’s a lack of being healthy to start with and often, they’re unable to risk losing their employment.” According to the 2010 census, there are approximately half a million Hispanics in Michigan, with the largest numbers concentrated in southwest Detroit, Pontiac, Lansing, Flint and western Michigan, according to Mark Moreno, executive director of Michigan Hispanic Chamber. The largest country they come from is Mexico, then Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Columbia and Venezuela. “During the Mexican Revolution in the ‘30s, there were a number of individuals who fled the country, including members of my own family, who went anywhere from Oklahoma to Michigan,” Moreno said. “Where there is oppression, persecution or social injustice, people either look to combat it and change things, or flee. The tragedy that is happening in Venezuela today is an example. Some older family members are not going to leave their home. But younger generations are looking to pave the way for their families and help those who are choosing to stay behind in their country of origin.” Decades of violence and upheaval in the Middle East have led to immigration from numerous Arab countries. The Middle Eastern population is counted as White, according to professor Florence Dallo of Oakland University’s School of Health Science. “The Middle Eastern community is sometimes invisible in Michigan, and can pass for White,” Dallo said, although their health issues should force them to be recognized as their own category. “If they were to disaggregate the category, they would find that Arab Americans have a higher percentage of diabetes (than Whites). If we can’t show that there is a large population, then we can’t justify the allocation of resources. The census information is valuable so the federal government can determine where the money can go – which communities, who can have health access and care. “We know discrimination still exists.” Middle Eastern residents, who in Michigan have come in the greatest numbers from Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen, she said, have come in waves over the last 130 years, with about a half-million now in Michigan, for about six percent of the population. There are about 800,000 Arab Americans in California, she said, but they are spread out, and represent only one percent of California’s population. “As they live in ethnic enclaves, there have been some protective benefits to their health, for blood pressure, diabetes and cancer,” Dallo said, noting as they become more acculturated they often move from neighborhoods of immigrants to other communities. Hospitals may not recognize cultural and holistic treatments that residents desire to complement western medicine. “Oak Park years ago had a high population of Chaldeans, but they moved to West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills. In Sterling Heights, there is a mix of both newer immigrants and those who’ve been there a long time. Bloomfield Township is a place where Arab Americans go who are acculturated,” she said. In Michigan, there are approximately 400,000 Asians, 100,000 of which are Chinese Americans, according to Roland Hwang of the Association of Chinese Americans. Besides Chinese Americans, there are Southeast Asian Indians, Filipinos, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans and Southeast Asian Americans, primarily Vietnamese and Hmong, who came from Laos. “In metro Detroit, the Chinese population is primarily concentrated in Troy, Novi and Ann Arbor. Different subgroups are concentrated in different areas. Large groups of Filipinos live in Sterling Heights and Canton; big populations of Southeast Asian Indians live in Canton and Troy,” Hwang said. Health problems for Asians are a systemic issue, he said, because sampling data of the Asian population is underrepresented and “often Asians are left off the map,” he said. “There are a lot of health disparities within the Asian community based on cultural norms.” Women’s health issues are often neglected because of a lack of willingness by members of the community and lack of proper communication, to undergo mammograms, pap smears and general gynecological exams. But significantly worse, since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, is an increases in stress and anxiety due to a spike in anti-Asian violence, Hwang said, “as people are blaming the Asian community for its spread and the rhetoric from on high calling it ‘Chinese flu’ or ‘Kung flu.’ It’s causing stress, anxiety and worries among everyone, especially among kids returning to school. It’s just an additional overlay to the Chinese American community. “For someone with racial animus who wants to take out hate against Asians, they don’t necessarily differentiate between Chinese and other Asian groups,” Hwang said, noting there have been about 2,800 incidents of anti-Asian acts during the pandemic. “They’re acting out of racial animus. They don’t know who they’re targeting and that’s a concern.” There has been an economic impact to the Chinese community directly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic as well. “Certainly, Chinese restaurants felt the brunt early on, in January and February, before the rest of the shutdowns. Americans knew about the flu in Wuhan, China. There were a few months when people were shying away from Chinese restaurants,” Hwang said. “Way before the pandemic hit here, it was pretty bad,” confirmed Lisa Gray, head of the North American Chinese Restaurant Association, Michigan Chapter. “The virus is from China, and people thought there was an issue with Chinese food, that it could be with people in the kitchen. Social media really played a major role in this. The perception was that if you were Chinese, you were possibly carrying it.”

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