An acquaintance in the entertainment industry once explained to me why a project we were working on was stalled. He said we were getting “The Long No.”
He explained that in Hollywood, when someone does not like a project presented to him but does not want to offend the presenter because he may want something from that person in the future, he will drag out the rejection to soften the blow.
Having spent my formative years in a rural community, I was able to equate this tactic to what we called “frogs in a boiling pot.” As kids, we had heard that you could put a frog in a pot of cool water and set the pot on a low burning flame. And if you heated the water slowly enough, the frog would sit in a pot of boiling water until its death.
I never tried this frog experiment, but living in America, I have witnessed the same thing occur with African Americans in this country.
Centuries of attacks and abuses suffered by people of color have rendered many of us unaware of the ever-increasing dangers we face. Like the walking dead, we each wander through a life void of many of its meaningful qualities. We stand for renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner, giving no thought to the fact that it was written by a white supremacist and contained verses pledging death to people of color fighting for their freedom.
We shipped off to foreign lands to fight and die for the rights of people abroad, but did not have those rights at home. We join municipal police forces only to be gunned down by fellow officers responding to the color of our skin.
As appalling as these facts are, because they have constantly occurred over many decades, people of color have become numb to all but the worst abuses.
But the COVID-19 virus has narrowed the focus of the epic journey of African Americans in this country. This coronavirus has enveloped the entire globe, with the consequences spotlighting the iniquities created by the expansion of Western culture into the rest of the world.
Under this spotlight, one term that has come to the fore is “comorbidities” as it relates to the chronic health problems suffered by people of color because of oppression at the hands of white supremacy.
It is unnecessary to recount the centuries of exploitation of people of color through slavery and colonialism to lay the factual foundation of these inequities. The centuries-old abuses of people of color are well documented. As one health professional put it: We are “seeing differences in the impact on blacks with respect to the new coronavirus” because of “consistent, systemic, structural, continuous racism that permeates every aspect of what we refer to as civilized, first-world, privileged, American living — including health and health care.”
The National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine has published a report stating that the “relationship between race and comorbidity is of potential clinical and public health importance. The prevalence of comorbidities varies by race in the United States, with Blacks having higher rates and earlier onset of comorbid conditions than Whites.”
Systemic, societal problems, not simply an individual’s behavior, are now seen as the causes of certain comorbidities disproportionately suffered by people of color, and there needs to be a push for interventions to “backstop the biological fallout of living with oppression.”
While we push to end these systemic and social causes of disproportionate comorbidities, we must also address the problem of disparate health care delivery. Even the American Bar Association has acknowledged that “some people in the United States were more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes simply because of their race or ethnicity, not just because they lack access to health care.” This acknowledgement cited a report from the National Academy of Medicine that stated, “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.”
For centuries, bit by bit, people of color have been told “No!” to the enjoyment of the blessings of liberty. What happens next depends on us. We can continue to be complacent like the frogs in the boiling pot and take no notice of the fact that the social structure of America is killing us, or we can grab the levers of social power through voting and civic activism to save ourselves and the generations of people of color to come after us.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.