He--a former comrade of mine in the Socialist Workers Party--is African-American and has spent his career thinking, reading and writing about race. I, meanwhile, am a white, upper-middle-class, retired academic who thinks about race occasionally, in between the 53 other political topics that sometimes get my attention.
I have nothing to teach Mr. Miah about race--he'd be insulted if I even tried. My opinions are mostly Republican boilerplate. Mr. Miah has surely heard all of that before.
Still--for the benefit of other readers--let me very briefly state my position. Human beings are loyal first to their own kin, and second to others who look and talk like themselves. Therefore racism is a part of human nature, and there is no human society where it doesn't exist. It isn't caused by capitalism, imperialism, socialism, or any other -ism. It just is. It's not a problem for which there is any solution, merely mitigation--such as with affirmative action programs.
That's enough about me. Let's talk about Malik Miah, and specifically his article in Against the Current entitled Virus is Color Blind, Not Humans. The post concerns the large racial discrepancy in Covid victims. Mr. Miah's data:
Statistics (from a selection of states) show this life gap.
As of this writing (April 12):
Illinois: Blacks are 15% of the state’s population, whites 77%. Deaths: 42% Black, 36% white.
Michigan: Blacks are 14% of state’s population and 40% of deaths (heavily concentrated in the metro area of Detroit. The three counties of metro Detroit make up 83% of the state’s deaths).
Mississippi: Blacks are 38% of state’s population, 72% of deaths.
Louisiana: Blacks are 33% of the population, 70.5% of deaths.
South Carolina: Blacks are 27% of the population, 46% of the deaths.
New York City (the epicenter of the virus): Blacks and Hispanics die at twice the rate of whites, who are 46% of the population. The racially diverse Elmhurst section of Queens is being devastated.
Official figures are underestimated, as New York City has not counted deaths of many people who died at home and were never taken to hospitals. There were not enough tests to check.A couple of quibbles: Mr. Malik reports death rates, which are likely more accurately reported than other data. But we don't know from this whether Blacks are more likely to get Covid, or simply more likely to die from it. That will make a big difference in any conclusions. Second, I tend to think deaths attributed to Covid are overstated. Mr. Malik's point is correct, but on the other hand anybody who tests positive for the virus is assumed to have died from it, when in many cases (esp. in nursing homes) they died from something else.
So to complement Mr. Malik's death stats, I looked for data on Covid infections by race. The CDC website reports (as of May 24, 2020) that 26.6% of all cases were among Black people, or roughly double their percent in population (13%). That this qualitatively corresponds to Mr. Malik's data is reassuring.
The conclusion then is that Blacks are twice as likely to contact Covid than whites. Mr. Miah attributes that to racism.
He might be partly right, but his reasoning is mistaken. Certainly his opening paragraph is wrong.
The coronavirus is color blind. It strikes whites, Blacks, Latinos, indigenous people, Asians, rich and poor. So why the higher number of cases and deaths for African Americans?Susceptibility to any disease is significantly heritable, which means it varies by ethnicity. Dramatic examples include Tay-Sachs disease, which afflicts almost exclusively Ashkenazi Jews. West Africans suffer disproportionately from sickle cell anemia--a side effect from their relative resistance to malaria. Charles Mann points out that Black slaves in colonial Virginia had longer life expectancies than their white masters precisely because of that. I just survived a bout of bladder cancer, during which I learned that white men are twice as likely to have the disease than Black men--undoubtedly a genetic effect.
All diseases depend to one degree or another on the genetics of the host. That Covid is twice as prevalent among Blacks than whites strongly suggests genetics as at least a partial explanation. There will likely someday be a polygenic score that predicts susceptibility to this virus.
But genetic susceptibility cannot be the whole story. In Mr. Miah's telling, racism is the cause of Black poverty, and poverty leads to virus infections. That second premise is undoubtedly correct--poor people are more likely to get sick regardless of susceptibility. As a good Republican, I tend to attribute Black poverty more to the social dysfunction described by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1964. To which Mr. Miah will likely respond that that dysfunction is itself a product of racism.
To which I have no very good answer, except to note that racism is a very amorphous, ill-defined concept. As said, I freely acknowledge that it exists, and further I'd support some government policies to mitigate its effects (such as a narrowly-tailored affirmative action program). But if Mr. Miah wants to blame the Covid discrepancy on racism, he's gonna have to define racism much more precisely than he has, and then connect many more dots to show how it results in the Covid statistics. I don't think he can do that.
Looking toward the future, this is how Mr. Miah describes the path forward.
The United States is the only developed country in the world where there is no universal health care. The racial gap, however, has prevented united action — even though most people now support a single payer type system. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have never received fair and equal treatment. Many African Americans don’t have a primary care physician.
The ideology of white supremacy is so engrained that solidarity between whites and others has been difficult to forge. Racial inequality is exacerbated under a system that puts business and profits first. Yet the need for health solidarity is changing that.I doubt Mr. Miah and I will find too much common ground here. I think a single-payer system is a lousy idea that will never work. I don't think racial inequality is exacerbated by capitalism--quite the opposite.
Still, there is a problem when many African Americans don't have a primary care physician. And while I'm skeptical we'll ever make much progress, I surely support the notion of health solidarity. I do think that people like Mr. Miah and people like me can reach common ground on at least some issues. And we should try to do that.
To that end, we need to tone down the partisan bickering. Solving the primary care physician problem does not mean we have to solve all problems of everything first. On my side of the aisle we need to avoid epithets like "race-baiter" or "race-hustler." Those are not helpful. And Mr. Miah really needs to stop using language like "white supremacy."
Advice to everybody: if you want to win friends and influence people, throwing around casual insults is not helpful.