As the broadcasts first hit, Black people watched the news patiently as opinions on COVID-19 began to form. Some of us were stoic and naïve, even somewhat comical as we listened to bravado from the Black community saying things like, “This virus doesn’t affect Black people!” Some of us were wrong. It does affect us. And at an exponentially higher rate than any other race.
There are funders and donors, plenty of for-profit organizations and nonprofits, community development corporations, grassroots movements, volunteers, community neighborhood associations, a host of caring Hoosiers, churches, schools and government all working together in many different ways in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the recent data on disproportionate impacts by race, organizations are now working to understand and respond to the needs of the Black community, specifically.
The sudden shift in attention and attempt to understand the data begs the question; What exactly are we responding to? Are we responding to new needs or are we responding to sustained neglect?
Let that sink in.
In many ways, Black people have been neglected for a long time. For decades, the basic needs of Black people have been in high demand. Unemployment always hits the Black community the hardest. Black people have always been on the frontlines. Black people have been working as gas attendants and cashiers, package handlers and delivery drivers, warehouse and hospitality workers. Many of those workers are full-time employees yet still remain in positions of poverty. The United Way defines the employed yet impoverished as “ALICE” (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). According to the 2016 ALICE report, 61% of Indiana Black households are among the ALICE population or below the federal poverty limit.
Prior to COVID-19, the roles held by frontline workers weren’t deemed with the dignity of being referenced as “essential.” Most of these jobs don’t earn a living wage in Indianapolis. Most of the persons in these roles have been neglected. However, today, we need them — we need ALICE — more than ever.
If we only focus on the current “need,” the margin for the neglected will become wider. The have and the have-nots will further dichotomize leaving the fate of ALICE Black people to seemingly fall further down the economic rabbit hole that we already have trouble escaping.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the plight of Black America. Who’s surprised? If we consider the historical neglect, why are we surprised by a supposed sudden need? What has changed in these communities mid-Covid that was different than pre-Covid? Are we really responding to need or are we responding to a larger neglect than we previously recognized?
Small Black-owned businesses are at risk. They are (still) struggling to get resources and support. Food deserts are (still) found in highly dense Black communities at an exponentially higher rate. Black people have been superusers of public transportation. Black people are (still) suffering from high eviction rates and homelessness. Pre-existing medical conditions like asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure are considered problematic for individuals with COVID-19 making this virus a very skilled assassin equipped to infect and kill Black people at a much higher rate. Because alas, we’ve lived with these pre-conditions for now decades. The need then, perhaps, is not new at all.
Entities such as Kheprw Institute, the Indianapolis Recorder, Innopower and individuals such as Marshawn Wolley (IUPUI) and Shane Shepard (B4UFall) — to name a very few — have been working to educate, inform and advocate for the Black community for years.
I charge our community to join these leaders and focus on the neglect, not just the need. COVID highlighted the need, it did not create it. COVID did not create the neglect, either. The neglect is the gap. It’s unconscious bias and uninformed legislation. It’s ignoring the ALICE population. It’s enjoying privilege, quietly.
As we discuss increasing food distribution sites in response to the need, let’s not forget that many people lived in active food desserts prior to COVID. This is the time to give and give in new ways. Now that we are depending upon the ones we’ve neglected, let’s be more mindful of our behavior and do what we can to help. Yes, let’s respond to the need, the symptoms of poverty. But let’s also take this opportunity to acknowledge and respond to the neglect and help fix these issues for good.
Alan Bacon is a humanity advocate, community leader, musician and innovator. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org