“Hold my earrings” has come to be a literal and metaphorical phrase that signals that we as African American women are preparing for a struggle. Now, we are certainly facing perhaps the biggest struggle of my lifetime. In African American communities across the U.S., COVID-19 is taking our loved ones—our mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers—at an agonizing, disproportionate rate.
To comprehend this disparity, we have to unearth layers of oppression, from 1619 right up to this moment. That history (and present) is painful to confront—but understanding it is a kind of superpower: it enables us to see whole systems, and envision deep, transformative change.
Centuries of racist policy and practice have shaped the neighborhoods we live in, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, our access to education and justice, and the health care we receive (or don’t). Layers of harm, generation after generation, alter our bodies at the molecular level and even the genes we pass on to our children. Those harms, past and present, render us more vulnerable to the coronavirus—and also to the longer-term crises caused by climate change.
We’ve all seen the “blame the victim” narratives pointing to high rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension in Black communities as risk factors for COVID-19. All of that is true. Also true are the historical underpinnings of those diseases, including diets rooted in slavery as we had to survive on the scraps of meat not served at the master’s table. There is also the domination of big agriculture, which floods our stores with foods high in sodium, sugar, preservatives and other additives.
There’s the enduring impact of redlining, which robbed our neighborhoods of resources and green space, making it harder to get exercise. And African Americans breathe far more deadly air pollution, which has been linked to a higher risk of death from COVID-19, as our lungs are already under daily attack rendering them less able to withstand the new assault. While fossil fuel companies draw billions of dollars in profit, our communities literally choke to death on their emissions.
When presented with “conspiracy theories,” it’s hard for our communities to resist believing—with a history of human rights violations that includes unwilling experimentation on Henrietta Lacks’ DNA and on scores of Black men through the Tuskegee experiment, coupled with the present day phenomenon of losing people at rates so high that the bodies can’t be accommodated in morgues. All in a context where state-sponsored violence and murder of our communities is the order of the day. Most recently, the brutal murder of George Floyd, witnessed on video by millions, sparked collective outrage in cities across the country and the world.
It’s not just racism that makes us vulnerable. Each marginalization factor—whether it’s race/ethnicity, gender, immigration status, incarceration, LGBTQ orientation, age, geography, disability, or poverty—stands as a risk on its own. Those risks compound each other, causing double and triple jeopardy for individuals, families and communities.
It can be overwhelming to contemplate. On March 10, as the pandemic was fully coming to light in the United States, knowing what was to come given the known patterns of systemic inequities, I drafted “10 Equity Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States.” When people first looked at it, the reaction was, “Wow! That’s a lot. Can we sum it up somehow?”
Believe me, as an African American woman who works on climate justice, I know, it’s a lot.
I also know that all of it, every layer, is important to understanding—and to solving—the problems we face. Yes, we can put it all in buckets, sub-categories and sub-bullets. But when people begin to summarize, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized populations, fall through the cracks—just as they do in the larger systems we inhabit.
Ignoring the intersections of injustice results in superficial “fixes” that fail to address underlying causes. During the pandemic, we’ve seen how such false solutions can set people back to a condition worse than their pre-pandemic baseline. For example, restricted transit services put essential workers, who are disproportionately African American, in harm’s way as we cram into limited bus lines. Blanket policies to shut down services mean that fragile families with young children don’t have access to social services; that women don’t have access to reproductive health care or shelter from the surge in domestic violence; that people aren’t being treated for chronic illnesses that leave them most vulnerable to fatality from COVID-19. And then there are stories upon stories of people being turned away from hospitals and told to provide self-care at home, which has been a death sentence for too many families.
In the short term, we need emergency policy solutions such as cash payments, increased unemployment insurance, student debt deferments and moratoriums on utility shut-offs. In the long term, we need transformational policies aimed at shifting away from the “winner takes all” capitalist economy. That includes policies to end pollution and over-policing in our communities, as well as militarization at home and abroad, as well as policies to support immigrant rights, disability rights, gender justice, LGBTQ rights and more. It includes policies to support energy, food, water, and land/housing sovereignty; transit equity; universal access to healthcare, livelihoods, broadband, childcare; quality education, and true democracy.
Fortunately, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) women who live at the center of so many intersecting injustices, understand the need for transformational change. Indeed, BIPOC women are taking the lead on systems change, both during the pandemic and in the ongoing climate crisis.
Through mutual aid and other efforts, BIPOC women are on the frontlines of feeding those who hunger now, while setting up locally controlled, sustainable food systems.
That includes the folks at the Earthseed Collective in North Carolina and Leah Penniman of the Soulfire Farm in Upstate New York, who are growing a Black local food movement centered on care and cooperation.
Savi Horne of the Land Loss Prevention Project is fighting for land stolen from Black families; Jess Zimbabwe is also advancing land justice for Black people.
Dara Baldwin at the Center for Disability Rights is speaking truth to power about the “CARES Act”, the COVID-19 bailout that, as she says, “serves the interests of big businesses, while neglecting people with disabilities, women-owned businesses, people of color and immigrants.”
Stacey Long Simmons of the LGBT Health Taskforce is working to make sure the LGBTQ community has access to care in the context of COVID-19 and climate change.
Kizzmekia Corbett at the National Institutes of Health is leading on creating a vaccine for COVID-19 while using her social media platform to speak the truth on her analysis of the socio-political situation.
Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit is fighting against water shut-offs in her city; ensuring that all people have the power to claim the human right to water during the pandemic—and beyond.
Wahleah Johns of Native Renewables and Denise Fairchild of Emerald Cities Collaborative are working to heal the climate and build sustainable, equitable local economies through community-owned, renewable power systems.
Favianna Rodriguez of CultureStrike and Jayeesha Dutta of Another Gulf is Possible advance culture work which, in the words of Favianna, “empowers artists to dream big and disrupt the status quo.”
Huda Alkaff of Wisconsin Green Muslims is anchoring critical work on Healing Justice, given the history of trauma and harms that our communities hold.
Mimi Ho of the Movement Strategy Center constantly reminds us of the essentiality of “Leading with Love.”
There are so, so many more. With a bone-deep understanding of layered injustices, BIPOC women are working towards a world built on regeneration, cooperation, interdependence, and deep democracy, while resisting the deceptive lure of privatization and other false solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis to wreak outsized havoc on BIPOC communities and other groups that are often marginalized. In a warming world, it won’t be the last. So, hold our earrings: BIPOC women are on the frontlines of risk, but we are also on the frontlines of transformational justice.
Jacqueline Patterson is the Senior Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.