BY LYNNELL L. THOMAS
Here we go again. New Orleanians are having flashbacks of Hurricane Katrina. The announcement that the Morial Convention Center would be used as a hospital for COVID-19 patients reminds us of its ignominious designation as a “shelter of last resort” after the floods. The condemnation of New Orleanians for causing the crisis by not canceling Mardi Gras echoes former FEMA director Michael Brown’s blaming Katrina victims for not evacuating the city. The delayed and inadequate response by President Trump and his administration, even after warnings of a coronavirus pandemic from the Pentagon in 2017, reenacts the bungled approach that Congress rebuked in their 2006 bipartisan report on Katrina: “It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years, and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days. This crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted.” As African Americans fall victim to and die from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates, we are forced to relive the nightmare of Katrina. We’ve been there, done that.
Which is why coronavirus czar Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lament over these health disparities is so infuriating. At an April 7, 2020 coronavirus briefing, he stated, “It’s very sad. There’s nothing we can do about it right now.” That begs the question, when can we do something about it? When can we stop replaying the same press conferences, rewriting the same sobering reports, reissuing the same dire warnings?
Instead, we fall back on recycled stereotypes and misinformation that rationalize these disparities as either physiologically inherent or culturally persistent deficiencies in black people. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor, insists he is “looking at science” when identifying the “physiologic reason” that African Americans are more vulnerable to COVID-19. He claims that addressing obesity, not systemic racism, would alleviate the comorbidities of diabetes and high blood pressure that put African Americans more at risk for complications from COVID-19. That’s like saying the victims of the shameful 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment died from sexual promiscuity and not from the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly refusing to cure patients with penicillin.
Hopefully, that history isn’t being repeated with the administration’s fast-tracked clinical trials of the antimalarial drug hydroxycloroquine in Detroit, the U.S. city with the highest percentage of African Americans and one of the highest percentages of COVID-19 cases. Despite reservations by Dr. Fauci and other experts about the drug’s effectiveness and potentially fatal side effects, the Trump administration is willing to use an already vulnerable, marginalized community as human test subjects.
The disgraceful history of scientific racism in this country is a long one in which science has been weaponized to “objectively” prove the inferiority of African Americans, to paint them as responsible for their own condition, and to justify the persistence of racial inequality in a supposedly meritocratic society. And while Senator Cassidy’s efforts to prioritize the treatment of obesity are commendable, attributing poor outcomes for African Americans to obesity may be compounding the problem. Numerous studies have documented how the stigmatization of obesity leads to discrimination and anti-fat bias even among health care professionals, who in some instances fail to provide appropriate medical treatment. That sounds eerily familiar to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as do the common stereotypes associated with obesity, such as laziness, ignorance, and dependency – stereotypes that historically have been leveled against African Americans.
Another perplexing but widespread instance of victim-blaming has been the outcry that African Americans jeopardized their own health because of a conspiracy theory that black people were immune to the virus. While I’m unable to find evidence for how widespread this perception was – I’m black but only heard about it from the actor Idris Elba’s social media plea to refute the comments he saw posted online – it pales in comparison to the scope and duration of the conspiracy theory touted for weeks that the coronavirus was a left-wing hoax invented to undermine President Trump. If conspiracy theories caused disparate COVID-19 outcomes, we would be discussing the overwhelming number of Fox news reporters, right-wing pundits, and Republican politicians that succumbed to the disease. But we’re not.
Regrettably, what we are discussing is the same thing that we discussed after Hurricane Katrina: the correlation between race and risk. Because of entrenched income and wealth inequality, housing and food insecurity, substandard healthcare and education, increased environmental vulnerability, and staggering levels of poverty, African Americans were more vulnerable to and less capable of surviving and recovering from Hurricane Katrina. In the fifteen years since, we have heard the refrain from academics, politicians, clergy, journalists, and social justice advocates that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. We’ve witnessed the differential recovery process that has led to an even starker divide between white and black New Orleanians than the one that existed before Katrina. While white residents have largely recovered on par or exceeding national averages for quality of life indices, African Americans – and to a lesser extent Latinx and Asian Americans – lag behind. By contrast, African Americans in the city far surpass national averages for rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration, leading to poorer health and educational outcomes. The copious scholarship, reports, studies, and public conversations that proliferated since the storm consistently trace these disparities to a legacy of class, race, and gender inequities that were codified in law and practice and continue to dictate popular opinion and public policy. Despite what the tourism ads would have us believe, New Orleans is not exceptional in this regard. We see examples of these kinds of disparities in cities and suburbs throughout the country. And we’re seeing the effects of them in the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 infection among African Americans.
But analyses of Katrina didn’t just leave us with disheartening statistics. They also pointed a way forward by calling for legislative changes and public policy initiatives to ameliorate gross inequities in the distribution of wealth and the criminal justice system; to prioritize access to affordable housing and healthcare; to provide quality public education and meaningful employment at a living wage. It appears that we failed to heed the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. Measures like the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 continue to offer the greatest benefit to the highest income earners, further exacerbating the widening racial wealth gap.
As was the case with Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has shone a spotlight on the economic, social, and moral costs of deep-seated race, class, and gender inequities. It’s going to take more than a vaccine to cure that disease.
Lynnell L. Thomas is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory