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Historians Say “Decades of Medical Racism” Led to Unequal COVID Impact on Black & Latinx People

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Historians Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain dedicate their new book, “Four Hundred Souls,” to the “Black lives lost to COVID-19.” They put the content of their book in the context of the disparate impact of the pandemic on the African American community in the United States. “This has been in the making for decades. Even though this is a new virus, … it connects to a larger history of racial inequality, and we wanted to make sure that was clear,” says Blain. Kendi is a cancer survivor and notes Black and Latinx are more at risk from preexisting conditions because of a history of racist policies, but “Americans don’t know that history.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Blain, I wanted to ask you about another pivotal story of our time: the pandemic. In your book, you dedicate the book to the Black lives lost to COVID-19. Why the decision to do that? And could you put the content of the book in the context of what has been happening, the disparate impact of this pandemic on the African American community?

KEISHA BLAIN: Well, as we were writing the book, certainly, we had to deal with COVID-19. I think in that last year of pulling the pieces together, our lives were devastated, as really everyone’s lives were devastated, because of COVID-19. And it was important to acknowledge the challenge, but also to draw the connections for the reader, because, ultimately, Black and Brown communities are suffering at disproportionate rates when it comes to COVID-19 in terms of contracting the virus and also dying from the virus.

What is clear, if you look at the history, is that, of course, this is not some mystery. It comes out of decades of medical racism. Certainly, you can talk about inequality in healthcare access. And so, the history that we tell help explain how we got to this particular moment. And it was important for us to acknowledge it, certainly in dedicating the book to those who lost their lives, and then to draw the connections throughout the narratives for readers to see that this has been in the making for decades. Even though this is a new virus and this is a new moment in which we’re talking about COVID-19, it connects to a larger history of racial inequality, and we wanted to make sure that was clear.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kendi, before we go to break and then delve more deeply into both of your book, Four Hundred Souls, we wanted to put that same question to you about the issue of Black and Latinx people in this country continuing to die from the coronavirus at higher rates, far higher, now new data showing they’re getting vaccinated at much lower rates than white people. The CDC reports more than 60% of those vaccinated so far were white, just 11.5% Latinx, 6% Asian, just over 5% Black, coming as many Black and Latinx people face a disproportionate risk of exposure to COVID in their jobs as essential workers and are more likely to have preexisting conditions. I put that question to you, Professor Kendi, as you, in our past shows, have talked about your own battle with cancer. You’re also married to a doctor. And what it means to survive and to face devastating illness?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and I think what’s striking is the question has always been why. You know, why is it that Black and Brown and Indigenous people have been infected and killed at higher rates from COVID-19 than white folks? And when we first realized and saw these racial disparities last April, Americans immediately turned to this idea that it must be because there’s something wrong with those Black and Latinx and Indigenous people. They’re not socially distancing. They’re not taking the coronavirus seriously. They have these preexisting conditions because they’re so lazy and they don’t want to eat right.

And all the while, you know, as Professor Blain stated, it was the result of this history and presence of racist policies that causes Black and Brown and Indigenous people to live in neighborhoods that are more likely to be polluted, to be less likely to work from home, to have less access to health insurance, and to be more likely to live in what’s called trauma deserts, where people don’t have access to high-quality life-saving care.

And then, what happened? The same story emerged a year later, or almost a year later, when vaccines started, you know, of course, going out, and we started seeing disparities in which Black and Brown people were less likely to receive the vaccine. So, then it became, “Well, it’s these folks don’t want the vaccine. They’re hesitant to take the vaccine.” It’s not — so, there’s something, again, wrong with folks of color, as opposed to a question of access, as opposed to the question of outreach. It’s consistently Black folks are blamed, just as Latinx and Indigenous folks are blamed, and one of the reasons is because Americans don’t know their history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to talk about some of that history in a moment with Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain, both professors, both historians, both co-editors of the new book, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “My World Is Empty Without You” by The Supremes. One of the group’s founding members, Mary Wilson, died on Monday at the age of 76.

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Next story from this daily show

“Four Hundred Souls”: Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha Blain on History of African America from 1619 to Now

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