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COVID Racial Data Tracker: Ibram X. Kendi on How Better Data Reveals the True Toll of the Pandemic

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Ibram X. Kendi says early media coverage of COVID-19 as “the great equalizer” missed the racial impact of the disease. But it soon became clear “that it was Latino Americans and African Americans and Native Americans in particular who were disproportionately being infected and dying.” The award-winning author and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University joins us to discuss why he started the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our discussion with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, award-winning author, professor of history and international relations, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

Let’s turn now to the staggering toll the coronavirus is taking on African Americans in the United States. According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, over 20,000 Black people have died due to COVID-19 infection, at a rate nearly twice that of the population share in the United States, this coming as the total U.S. death toll is at just about 100,000 and states rush to reopen their economies despite massive loss of life and warnings from public health experts.

Dr. Kendi, can you help — can you explain the COVID Racial Data Tracker?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, in early April, only a handful of states had even released racial demographic data. So I called, and other people started calling, for racial data. And so, by the second week, more states were releasing this data. And so we decided — my colleagues at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center started partnering with folks at the COVID Tracking Project to build what we call the COVID Racial Data Tracker. And that was essentially to collect all of this data that was finally beginning to release by states all over this country, but not only that, to continue to advocate for more states to release data and to collect it, to ingest it and to, of course, make it available for everyday Americans, so they can see racial disparities that are persisting to this day all over the country, and then, hopefully, use this data to protect and create policies for the most vulnerable communities, because all over the country Black people are disproportionately dying, Latinx people are disproportionately infected, Native people in states like Arizona are disproportionately dying, and even Asian Americans in places like Alaska, Native Hawaiians are disproportionately infected in Hawaii. You know, people of color are disproportionately being impacted by COVID-19, as the data shows.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Kendi, New York City obviously was the epicenter of the virus in the United States, and initially there was a lot of attention focused on Manhattan and people fleeing Manhattan. Then the focus shifted to Queens. But, ultimately, now it’s been clear that the hardest-hit area of New York City, as I had suspected all along, was the Bronx, where 90% of the population is African American and Latino, and that, by far, has the most percentage of infections, of deaths. And your sense of how the focus of the coverage of the pandemic has been in the U.S.?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I mean, I think that early on, the coverage was, “Oh, this is the great equalizer.” And it certainly is the case that every American, no matter their race, and even obviously now their age and ethnicity and gender, can be infected, can die of COVID-19.

But it seems like at least by the latter part of March, certainly by early April, that it was Latino Americans and African Americans and Native Americans in particular who were disproportionately being infected and dying. And it really had to take many grassroots folks to begin demanding for racial data to even see this, because the states were refusing to do it. Now, I will say many journalists, as well, particularly in states all over this country that we’ve worked with, also made demands of their states to release the data. And then it began to start to roll out just how this was not the great equalizer.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the Trump administration’s push to reopen the country. This is top White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett speaking to CNN Sunday.

KEVIN HASSETT: Our capital stock hasn’t been destroyed. Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work. And so that there are lots of reasons to believe that we can get going way faster than we have in previous crises.

AMY GOODMAN: In response to this, Professor Kendi, you tweeted, “This is jarring because my enslaved ancestors were literally human capital stock. No matter what, they were always told to go back to work. This could be 1820.”

IBRAM X. KENDI: I mean, it’s devastating. And I think for any American — Republican, Democrat, middle-income, low-income, poor, Black, white, Latino — I think this should be an indication of what the Trump administration thinks about you, that essentially they’re driving you back to work so their benefactors — so they — can make money. And it’s just that simple. You are literally an entity. You are literally capital, just as my enslaved ancestors were.

And, you know, this isn’t hyperbole. You know, in 1860, 4 million enslaved people were worth more than any other body and anything of this country. You had slave owners borrowing [inaudible] the number of enslaved people they had. They were purchasing — they were using enslaved people as collateral. And ultimately, they recognized that their wealth, their capital, came as a result of the labor of those people, just as they see that today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you also about the institutional populations that have been so hard hit, both in the prison and jail systems in the country and in senior citizen homes. Again, the racial disparities are so stark that even among the elderly, those who were in senior citizen centers that were — I mean, in long-term facility centers that were largely African American and Latino, have a far higher death rate than those who were in long-term care facilities that were largely white.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes. So, I think it’s certainly important for us to recognize that people of color are being disproportionately infected and killed by COVID-19, but I think it’s important for us to also specialize what groups of people of color are being hit the hardest. And so, without question, senior citizens of color, their homes are more likely to be sites of outbreaks than the majority-white homes. Certainly, incarcerated people, and not just incarcerated people in jails, but even people who are being held by ICE, are also being infected. And even the homeless population, undocumented people. I mean, this is — you know, all the people who have been driven to the bottom of the society are the people who are literally suffering in the shadows. And we need to pull them out of the shadows and defend them.

AMY GOODMAN: And as the administration and the numbers go to 100,000, clearly the number is far higher, because, among other things, of the number of people who have died at home and not been counted. And they definitely fall within the populations you’re tracking, Professor Kendi. The Trump administration has resorted to blaming the dead, particularly African Americans, for the sky-high death rate. This is Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper.

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: Unfortunately, the American population is a very diverse, and it is a — it is a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities, that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular African American, minority communities, particularly at risk here because of significant underlying disease, health disparities and disease comorbidities. And that is an unfortunate legacy in our healthcare system that we certainly do need to address. But, no, the response here in the United States has been historic to keep this within our healthcare capacity. Even in New York City to keep this within capacity is genuinely a historic result.

JAKE TAPPER: I want to give you an opportunity to clear it up, because it sounded like you were saying that the reason that there are so many dead Americans is because we’re unhealthier than the rest of the world, and I know that’s not what you meant.

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: Oh, no, I think that there is —


HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: We have significant — we have a significantly disproportionate burden of comorbidities in the United States — obesity, hypertension, diabetes. These are demonstrated facts that make — that do make us at risk for any type of disease burden.

JAKE TAPPER: Sure, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s the fault of the American people that our government failed to —

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. Jake, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER: — take adequate steps in February.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Trump official Alex Azar speaking to Jake Tapper on CNN. Your response, Professor Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, what’s fascinating is, by the second week of April, when more and more Americans realized that Black people were disproportionately dying, the first way to blame Black people was to say they were not socially distancing, they were not taking the virus seriously. Survey data a month earlier had already disproven that. But then it was hard to also make that case when white Americans overwhelmingly were protesting to reopen their states.

So then it became zeroed — they zeroed in on this idea that Black people have greater underlying conditions. The problem with that argument is, studies have shown that what’s more predictive of Black infection and death rates are access to medical care, access to high-quality healthcare — I should say access to health insurance — even air and water pollution, employment status. All these social determinants of health are actually more predictive of Black death and infection rates than their underlying conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me, finally, go to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has since apologized, but after facing a backlash for telling radio host Charlamagne tha God that he, quote, “ain’t Black” if he supported Trump. Well, this is specifically what he said.

JOE BIDEN: You got more questions, but I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: It don’t have nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact I want something for my community. I would love to see —

JOE BIDEN: Take a look at my record, man. I extended the voting rights 25 years. I have a record that is second to none. The NAACP has endorsed me every time I’ve run. I mean, come on, take a look at the record.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Biden on The Breakfast Club, speaking with Charlamagne. He apologized during a conference call with the U.S. Black Chambers. Your final response, Professor Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, as Charlamagne said, it doesn’t really have to do with Trump, particularly for young Black voters, who I call the other swing voters. And these are typically voters who are swinging between voting Democrat or not voting at all, or even third party. And so they’re trying to decide whether they’re going to vote for Biden. Trump, for them, is not an option. And so, when Biden says something like, “Well, if you vote for Trump, then you’re somehow not Black,” I think not only is it extremely harmful, because Black people are very sensitive about who’s Black — I mean, it’s almost at the level of talking to us about slavery — but then also he doesn’t recognize that he’s running against himself with the young Black voters who voted for Obama and didn’t vote in 2016.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and international relations, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C., National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, also How to Be an Antiracist. We look forward to your children’s book, which many parents can read to their kids, sheltering in place. It’s titled Antiracist Baby. All the best to you and your family, Ibram.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk about deaths in custody, in ICE custody. Why are tens of thousands of immigrants still being held there during this pandemic? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Mystery of the Planet” by Moraes Moreira, who passed away in April.

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