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Civil rights leader Ben Chavis joins us to talk about why this is happening, how we have to address this epidemic, and what it means for our future.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.


Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner, good to have you with us. We at The Real News are planning a number of broadcasts and conversations about the adverse and outsized impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on black and indigenous communities.

Our guest today has been writing about this, most recently in the newspaper, The Hill, he’s Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who is president and CEO of the storied National Newspaper Publishers Association that represents most of the black owned newspapers in the country. He’s global director for them for the coronavirus task force, he’s a 60-year veteran of the civil rights movement, ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, journalist, author, chemist, and father of eight children, and of course was the President of the NAACP, and Dr. Chavis, welcome. Great to have you with us.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Thank you, Marc. It’s always good to speak to you, and I appreciate the work of Real News.

Marc Steiner: Well, it’s good to have you with us, and I appreciate your work as well over the years. When I saw your bio, it said 60 years, I realized that two weeks ago, it was 60 years that I walked my first picket line to end segregation in Baltimore as a kid. So-

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Absolutely.

Marc Steiner: Here we are.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: I think we were around the same age, Marc.

Marc Steiner: That’s right. So let’s begin. One of the things that is striking me at the moment, and I think much of America, is the news now coming out, about the inordinate number of members of the African American community in Michigan, in Louisiana and in Wisconsin that are being affected and infected by this virus, and dying from the virus.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: They’re saying New York too. It’s almost-

Marc Steiner: And New York as well.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: As soon as the data comes out… And in Jersey, it’s all over the country, Marc. And that is because African Americans, before the coronavirus hit, we were already disproportionately consumed with preexisting health disparities, preexisting health maladies. And that’s made us more vulnerable. It’s not that black people are taking more risks, that’s not it, it is that the vulnerability of this disease depends on your immune system. And if you have weakened immune systems because of obesity, diabetes, heart disease… For example, right in Harlem, 60% of all the children in Harlem have asthma. They’re not born with asthma, they get asthma because of the poor air quality.

So the environmental concerns, the racial justice concerns, the economic justice concerns, all of these disparities have made black Americans, and a lot of brothers and sisters on the native lands also, indigenous people, much more vulnerable than a majority of the population. And that is why… It’s amazing that some people were shocked that more black, people are dying of coronavirus. Well, there’s a reason why. And the reason is because of all the history of discrimination, history of disparities, history of disabilities that are visited on our community disproportionately, and the lack of access to quality health care.

Also food deserts. If you don’t have the right nutrition, your body can’t fight off these diseases. You have to have a strong immune system. And what we all know from epidemiology, immune system is also a function of your nutrition, of what kind of food you eat. And we have food deserts in our community. Even in the urban centers, people don’t get a lot of fresh food. So all these things together, there’s not one single fact a month, it’s a combination, a complex web of history of oppression, history of economic exploitation, history of a lack of access to health care.

Now, the question is, once we get through this coronavirus, what is America going to do? Are we going to try to make the democracy include health care? Are we going to try to make the democracy include adequate housing, adequate raising of children up in environments and communities that are safe and not vulnerable to these kind of health epidemics?

Marc Steiner: Approach this in a couple of different ways here. My friend, Dr. Lawrence Brown, is now at the university of Wisconsin, Madison. He’s been working on this for years when he was at Morgan State University. And he… One of the things he talks about is that if you look at the history of redlining in this country, if you look at the history of segregation, what’s happened since the end of segregation, and the industrialization, and the increased impoverishment of a huge section of the black community in the United States, in urban areas, in the dystopian communities, bombed out looking communities, that all this kind of feeds into, as you were saying, to why more African Americans are being affected. Like in Louisiana, one third of the population is black, 70% of the cases are black.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Louisiana also has Cancer Alley. That means that there were more black people… Back in the 1980s, Marc, I coined the term environmental racism. And people said, “Well, what does that have to do with civil rights stuff?” Well, because epidemiologically it exposes us to all these health hazards. Because of gerrymandering, because of poor housing, because of industrial base being right adjacent to our communities, we inhale the fumes, we inhaled other things.

So while it is shocking again, and alarming, in fact, a week ago, at the NNPA, our national global coronavirus task force, we declared a state of emergency in black America, around this terrible pandemic that… The pandemic itself is indiscriminatory. It’ll get anybody, from the prime minister of the UK to brothers and sisters on the street corners. But the thing is, who is more vulnerable? And that’s the issue that we need to address, that we need to try to have remedied, and not sweep under the carpet until the next pandemic happens.

Marc Steiner: So this raises two questions I want to raise with you. One has to do with where we are now, and what to do in the future. If you look at where we are now, and the real lackadaisical response of the Trump administration to dealing with this pandemic we’re facing in this country, and looking now at the adverse effects it’s having on black, indigenous and poor communities, what should they be doing at this moment they’re not doing, to ensure that we get ahead of this while this is happening, so we don’t lose tens of thousands of black Americans, indigenous people, and poor people in this country to this pandemic?

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Well, I think what has been done is not enough, by the government, by the federal government, States, or… To have every state depending for itself is not right. It should have been a national, and it’s still not too late, Marc, I think that the federal government, working in concert with all the States, needs to have one plan. And that plan is to get to the communities that are most vulnerable, black communities and indigenous people are most vulnerable. That’s where the resources ought to go. That’s where the ventilators ought to go. That’s where the masks ought to go.

We’re in somewhat of a… We believe that American society is exceptional. Well, that’s arrogant, because we should have learned from the other places this pandemic hit before it hit the United States. In China, everybody’s required to wear a mask. Everybody’s not required to wear a mask here. And once you have the coronavirus in China, they track you. They don’t do that here. So I think there has not been appropriate or proportional or adequate government response. We’re still not… This thing, we’re not even halfway through this thing Marc. And I still think the government, on an emergency basis, now has to act to save lives. We talk about Black Lives Matter, our hashtag now is Save Black Lives.

Marc Steiner: Take us beyond this, the political question. It’s hard to get away from politics at any of this, but when you look at the lack of universal health care and coverage for people in the United States, and how it adversely affects poor people who… Poor people have to go to work, who cannot telecommute, as you wrote about in your article in The Hill. And so what do we have to do longterm? What lessons do we learn from this to change what goes on in the future for our children, grandchildren, everybody else?

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Well, again, and it’s a very good question, number one, we need universal health care for all. Healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. Right now, healthcare is a privilege, it’s an economic privilege, and I think… So number one, we need universal health care for all of people who live in this country. We can afford it. And look, talk about the cost, look what happened with the cost of not having universal healthcare. Now billions of dollars are going to have to be spent to try to repair the economy, repair the communities.

And even in the repair, if we’re not careful, Marc, all this stimulus packages are going to try to get us back to where we were before the pandemic, but that’s the problem, where we were before the pandemic is also the problem. In fact, it’s going to cost us more if we don’t have universal healthcare. Secondly, I think we have to work on greater economic equity and equality in America. Affordability. People need not only just a job, but a good job. The wages, there was a big argument about whether or not we’re going to have the minimum wage between 8 and $15. The minimum wage should be about $25.

Marc Steiner: Amen to that.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: So, all these issues, you’re right, are going to become public policy now that you know the census has been counted. Well, during this virus, the census has been suppressed. It’s going to be an inadequate count. I think they need to extend the period of the United States census, they need to extend the period, and making sure that people can register to vote. I think some states, I think Wisconsin did a terrible thing this week, requiring people to go out and vote amidst a pandemic.

So you’re right, the politics of this is making a heavier burden on people of color, the politics of this is making a heavier burden on indigenous people, and I think for all Americans. We need one democracy, not two or three different kinds of democracy. We need one society, not a society that is distinguished or discriminated based on race or ethnicity or religion or anything else.

Marc Steiner: So let me close, that’s an eloquent statement. Let me close with this question. When you look at this pandemic and the political divide that exists in our country, this pandemic does not stop the social, political and economic battle for equality in America and the world we want to build here in our own country. So how do you see that playing out between now and November? This is a very difficult time. People are stuck, they can’t get out of their homes, people can look at you saying you’re attacking Trump, you’re being divisive, so how do you think we proceed?

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Well, I think we have to use what we have in our own hands as Martin Luther King used to tell us, and Adam Clayton used to tell us. What do we have in our hands? We have our vote, we have our count in the census, and we have our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable at the congressional level, at the state level, at the municipal level, at the county level, and we have to hold our own communities. I think this is just not about a finger at somebody else, we all need to look in our national mirror, our personal mirrors, and see what more we can do to help one another.

I think of all these health care workers who are risking their own lives to save lives. And I think that we need better wages for teachers, better wages for healthcare workers, I think America now, it’s interesting with all this talk about the stimulus and how to revive the economy, I don’t think we can go back to days before this January. I think 2020 has to be a year of pivot, we have to pivot in America, and to be more concerned about the least of these, if I can use a biblical phrase.

And I think that we need what Martin Luther King used talk about the beloved community. The beloved community is not and exclusive community. It is an inclusive community. And that’s the central issue, Marc, that we’re facing with this corona virus. Are we going to come out of this and have a more inclusive America, or are we going to come out as even more divided, even more discriminated against, even more oppressed and exploited? That is the central question. And I think all Americans are going to have to weigh in on how we come out of this at the ballot box in November and how we’ve come out of this in terms of demand in universal health care.

Marc Steiner: Well, Dr. Ben Chavis, first let me thank you for your decades of fighting for an equitable America, and it’s been a pleasure to have you here on The Real News. Look forward to many more conversations. Good luck to you and please stay healthy and safe.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Thank you, Marc. The same to you. We’ve got another 60 years to go brother.

Marc Steiner: Yes we do bro. Thank you so much Dr. Chavis.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: Thank you. God bless.

Marc Steiner: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Please, all of you stay healthy and safe. Let us know what you think, stay in touch, take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.