Covid-19 & the Black Community: Addressing Racism and Claiming our Responsibility

You may have read Van Jones’ op-ed published by CNN last week, or read criticisms of what he said. Here’s my take.

A Bit of Background

Van Jones, a CNN commentator and host, wrote last week about how in addition to all the systemic racism that creates disparities in health care in the US (and especially during this pandemic), some Black individuals can also take more responsibility for their health and wellbeing. Jones names some of those systemic disparities, such as wealth inequality, lack of access to fresh and healthy food, and more stressful and physically demanding work.

But while acknowledging that that foundation of institutional racism is the core of the health disparity between races, Jones states that for decades, “[he] used [his] social justice activism as an excuse to neglect [his] health. [He] took on cause after cause. But the whole while, [he] ate crappy food, rarely exercised, guzzled diet soda and rarely slept. [He] abused [his] body through stress and overwork.” And today, Jones shares, he struggles with high cholesterol, pre-diabetic symptoms, and hypertension, putting him at higher risk for coronavirus complications than others.

Jones’ point is that, while systemic and institutional factors will always be the root of health disparities, that doesn’t mean that we as Black individuals shouldn’t do what we can to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. He suggests we do the following: “eat healthier. Drink more water. Move our bodies. Process emotional pain through therapy, rather than comfort eating or substance abuse. Commit to a spiritual or religious practice. Meditate. Rest. Get more sleep. And let’s not forget to practice gratitude.”

But Jones was slammed with criticism for his op-ed, being accused of blaming victims of systemic racism for our own struggles.

My Take on Jones

Perhaps Jones doesn’t do a great job acknowledging that some of these health, nutrition, and lifestyle changes are unattainable for some, especially lower income, Black folks. And that, of course, is also a result of centuries-old, systemic, and institutional racism.

That aside, though, his point that some middle-class Black folks like himself and like myself haven’t always taken responsibility or accountability for our own health and wellbeing in the ways we can is true. For those with the means, we can and must start making the changes Jones suggests to give ourselves the best possible chance of a healthy and long life so that we CAN continue to fight injustice.

Of course, if Jones were saying that our individual choices are equally to blame for health disparity as systemic racism, that would be problematic. We can’t overcome centuries of mis/undereducation and institutional racism in every sector of life just by eating organic food, exercising more, and reducing stress. But Jones isn’t putting individual choices on the same level as systemic racism. He’s saying, I’m saying, that for those of us who have the capacity, taking responsibility for our own health is a critical next step.

Critic Ibram X. Kendi Argues

“There are many Black individuals who would be healthier if they changed their lifestyles. Urging them to do so can be helpful to those individuals. But urging Black people as a group to change their lifestyles as a solvent to health disparities between groups is not helpful. There are many White individuals, too, who would be healthier if they changed their lifestyles, too. Why isn’t Jones lecturing them? Among those Black and White individuals making poor health choices, why are Black people dying at higher rates? I believe Jones sincerely wants to help Black people, and I champion anyone who is striving to save Black lives, to save American lives in general. Jones is not like those wholly racist Americans attacking him for not wholly pointing to Black behavior as needing to change. Jones thinks racism and Black behavior are the problem. I respectfully disagree. The problem is racism. The solution to health disparities is transforming society, not transforming Black people.”

My Take on Kendi

But here’s where I see a double standard. If Black folks are urging white allies to work on/educate/transform their own communities, why can’t leaders like Van Jones do the same for their communities?

The reality is that of course the system needs to be transformed. But for a people who have suffered centuries of violence and oppression and continue to suffer in massive ways up to this day, individual transformation is also needed. This is my line of business.

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