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How apartheid and redlining are fueling the global COVID-19 pandemic and how people can fight back.

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

Jason Hargrove: This coronavirus shit is for real and we out here, as public workers doing our job, trying to make an honest living, to take care of them families, but for you to get on the bus and staying on the bus, and cough several times without covering up your mouth and you know that we in the middle of a pandemic, that lets me know that some folks don’t care.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. That was Detroit bus driver, Jason Hargrove’s impassioned plea just 12 days before he succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic and begs the question, are we all in this together? We were told the coronavirus would be the great equalizer. It doesn’t discriminate, based on zip code or socioeconomic status. But as the bodies pile up, disparities are coming to the forefront, with much blame owed to the Trump administration’s response, more focused on grift, PR and bailouts for corporations and say actual harm reduction, people that most need it. African-Americans are six times as likely to die in Chicago, they make up just 30% of the population. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, African-Americans, make up 27% of the population, but over 80% of deaths. It’s a similar picture in Louisiana. 28% of the population, but over 70% of deaths. These disparities are no mistake. Frontline workers like Jason Hargrove don’t have the privilege of working remotely or social distancing. Well, now joining us to discuss this, is scholar, activist, Lawrence Brown. He’s at the University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute. Thanks so much for joining us.

Lawrence Brown: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: I wanted to ask you, give us the latest on the Wisconsin elections. We know there was, what’s been described even by Lieutenant Governor, as voter suppression holding sites were shut down all over the state, especially in black neighborhoods.

Lawrence Brown: Well, I mean, one of the real issues is really that there were five polling sites in Milwaukee, a city of around 600,000 and maybe 62 or 60 or so, open in the city of Madison, a city of a quarter million. If you look at just the overwhelming disparity in terms of the number of polls open if you’re looking at equity there. But then also there’s the question of whether or not the polls should have been open at all in the middle of a pandemic. I think, those are some of the questions that I think activists here have raised and some of the disparities that are, were on the table as Tuesday’s election when underway.

Jaisal Noor: Your new piece is The Corona Apocalypse: Why COVID-19 targets redline black neighborhoods and hyper-segregated cities. Makes me think of St Louis, which is just right where Ferguson is just right outside of. All of St Louis deaths from coronavirus are African-American, 12 out of 12.

Lawrence Brown: Yeah. I mean, in that piece I really try to outline that many of the cities that we’re seeing have the most impact from COVID-19, are indeed hyper-segregated cities and hyper- segregation as a category discussed by several scholars. But, really Douglas Massey, who wrote the book American apartheid with his colleague Nancy, didn’t. Him and his colleagues really outline the multiple ways that cities can be segregated and they use five measures, concentration, centralization, clustering, isolation and unevenness. When cities ranked over a score of 60 on any one of those measures, they gain one of the categories and the five categories that they use were low, moderate, highly segregated, and then hyper segregation, category four and hyper segregation, category five.
So, you have those five ways or categories you can look at for hyper-segregation. Cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, are category five hyper-segregated cities, if you’d like to use the analogy of a hurricane. Those are the cities that have the most intense form of hyper-segregation. It turns out that many of the cities that have the highest levels of COVID-19, are also hyper-segregated. New York is a category four hyper-segregated city. Chicago, category five. Milwaukee, category five. St Louis, category five, and so there is no mistake in my mind that when you look at the high numbers of cases, hyper- segregation is at the root. The issue with segregation in America, it’s not just white and black people living separately from each other. It’s what happens to neighborhoods when it comes to the allocation of resources. That’s the issue. With hyper-segregation, you have the hyper-accumulation of resources in white communities and the hyper-deprivation of resources in the black communities. That’s what happens with hyper- segregation and we’re seeing that play out with the COVID-19 epidemic.

Jaisal Noor: I was looking at some numbers from the Economic Policy Institute. If you are, low income, if you’re a person of color, if you are African-American, you are far less likely to be able to work from home or work remotely. That, I think is putting, especially people of color on the front lines, where a lot of them are making huge sacrifices. We saw Chris Smalls, the Amazon worker, he got smeared as being inarticulate, trying to just have basic safety measures for his fellow workers. We’re seeing suffering, but also we’re seeing resilience, despite these tremendous odds as well.

Lawrence Brown: Absolutely. I think, what I’m really concerned about with the information coming out that African-Americans are disproportionally impacted is that there isn’t enough emphasis being put on the spatial dimension of why African-Americans are the most impacted. It’s not just because we bear a higher rate of disease, which again is due to hyper-segregation. But even think about workers who live in redline, black communities to get to those jobs, they have to travel further because those jobs aren’t in their communities. So, if they’re traveling further, if they’re using public transportation because of the racial income and the racial wealth gaps, they’re traveling further to low-wage jobs on public transportation to get to places where there they have to work as essential workers, then they’re going to be more exposed to COVID-19.
Think about going to get food. If the grocery store that you need to get to is not in your neighborhood, you have to travel a further, a longer distance, then that too, is adding to your risk. Even the spacial nature of our cities, where resources aren’t located in black communities, if people need to go to jobs, if they need to get food, they’re having to travel longer distances, more likely use public transportation, if they don’t have cars and therefore more exposed, both in terms of in- transit and more exposed in terms of being not able to work from home.

Jaisal Noor: An Amazon worker from Chicago, we talked to, Christian Zamarron said, he said it plainly, “We are considered essential workers, but we’re treated like disposable,” because on top of everything you said, they’re also not getting, basic safety gear. They’re not being allowed to socially distance in their workplace and oftentimes you’re seeing people … Amazon CEO was worth over $120 billion and he’s not letting … He’s firing people that are trying to raise awareness of safety. This all begs the question, these conditions existed before the pandemic, which you’ve written about extensively and this is so, coronavirus is only making worse the issues that we already are dealing with.
But the question now is, how do we use this to organize? We just did a story about Spain where, the Left parties are coming together and saying, “Look, we need to start giving the people who need it, money in their pockets every week, every month, to make sure that they can make ends meet even after this is over. They’re trying to fight to make that permanent. In America, it seems we’re seeing an actual shock doctrine because these big corporations are getting bailouts, but you don’t see communities getting bailouts and so far, 1200 bucks, one time check, that’s not going to cut it for a lot of people.

Lawrence Brown: Well, I like the way you just said, communities being bailed out, because if you look at hyper-segregation and how redline, black communities are being the most impacted, then I think you would be talking about the way we need to have emergency response really being allocated towards communities in Milwaukee. It’s North Milwaukee where African Americans live that have the highest rate of COVID-19 exposure and death. In St Louis, I’m pretty sure it’s north of Delmar Road. Detroit, south of 8-Mile Road. In Baltimore, the Black Butterfly. When you look at the spatial layout of these cities the maps show, then they will show the more we accumulate data, that black neighborhoods are the ones that are most impacted. Latin-X communities will be very much impacted. Native American communities and reservations would be very much and disproportionately impacted. So, those communities actually need a greater level of emergency response.
I don’t mean, militarized hyper-policing in terms of response. I mean, actually what we should have is an army of community health workers, really deployed in these communities compensated well, which would help the employment issue. But, actually folks going out, because it’s not says a matter of the word not getting out, or us really trying to address this issue. It’s also a trust factor that we have to address. Many people of color do not trust the healthcare system and the messaging, if you look at it, is not going out in a way that really speaks to the different cultural communities that we have in this nation. We really should be utilizing community health workers in a much stronger way, even going door to door with protective equipment to check on folks. Even though there’s this distancing, physical distancing that we have to have, there shouldn’t be social distancing in terms of the community and being able to look out for each other.
Physical distancing, yes, but pulling away from our social connections and social bonds with each other, I think that’s a mistake. I think organizing, really should take place in that way. Organizing, if you look at the Black Panther party, they were health organizers. The Black Panther party, they started free breakfast for children, free health clinics, free ambulance services. There is a precedent for organizing around health justice and I think we have to start in this moment to ensure that we bring the pandemic to an end, number one, and then make sure people are getting through it in the recovery phase. That goes to your point about income supports weekly, not just a one-time check that comes way too late after rent is due, but making sure we’re looking at all of these factors to make sure people are able to make it through this current apocalypse.

Jaisal Noor: Finally, we can expect the shock doctrine where elites use crises to implement harsh measures, they won’t, wouldn’t normally be able to. The Baltimore Police just tried to pass through, or just got their spy plane program. An actress had to go to court for that. But some of the public hearings we’re online, which makes it harder to … the Democratic National convention is probably going to be online now, which makes it harder to organize, to have disruptions, which are an essential tactic of organization too. What are your thoughts? People like, it’s a lot of Democratic mayors that are in charge of these cities, that aren’t letting prisoners out of these hotspots for COVID-19 transmission even until it’s too late.
We saw it happen in Sing Sing and Rikers Island, and you have people like Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who using this crisis to cut health spending and has rolled back progressive bail reform. There’s not much opposition to that. Do people need to start looking at this seriously, going forward?

Lawrence Brown: Absolutely. I mean, one reason you have Democratic mayors that are engaging in regressive emergency response practices and policies, again, is because of urban apartheid. That’s what they’re used to actually doing in normal times. So, when you have a pandemic coming, that’s your automatic reflex. You’re not going to push with vigor, the type of protections that are needed during the pandemic. If you’ve been used to evicting people and engaging in foreclosures, and having high levels of food insecurity, and desegregating cities, not just in terms of where people live, but desegregating the resources in those cities.
If you’re not doing that in normal times, what hope do we have that those folks will be doing that in the time of pandemic? That’s why I think we have to focus on hyper-segregation as the root because that’s what’s actually, that is what help cause the problem, the anticipation of the pandemic, and this was actually styming the type of responses that are really needed. One thing I should also mention is that,, really Baltimore is the home of American apartheid, it’s the home of urban apartheid in America. In 1910, Baltimore, Mayor John Barry Mahool, passed the first racial zoning law in America. If you look at that decade, after 1910, one of the reasons racial segregation was instituted, was because of public health. There was a disease, an infectious disease spreading at the time, and African-Americans were blamed for the disproportionate rate of disease that they had.
That disease was tuberculosis. There were other diseases like cholera, yellow fever. People recognized even then, that it was the living conditions, the segregated, alley housing the African-Americans lived in, that was contributing to that cause. But yet, and still, because of the disproportionality that African-Americans had with those diseases, that was used as a rationale by White Baltimorians is to help intensify racial segregation. My fear is, in what way might the notion that black people have a higher burden of this disease? Might that help in fact, cause history to repeat itself if we’re not careful. That again, public health can be used to help justify and intensify racial segregation, which again, racial segregation is weaponized economically. I think that’s why we have to really think deeply and look at how the intersection of space, place and race, all play a role in the way that we look at pandemics. Because, otherwise what we’ll have is people looking to hyper-police and hyper-segregate black communities even more because they’re bearing a greater burden of disease even though it’s hyper-segregation, that’s actually the root and cause behind it.

Jaisal Noor: That is a powerful note to end on. Dr. Lawrence Brown, and thank you. Obviously raising Baltimore, because you spent a lot of time here, you made great contributions to this city and you can keep giving these contributions. We all appreciate it here. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lawrence Brown: Absolutely. Power up to the Black Butterfly.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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Dr. Lawrence Brown is an activist, global health consultant, and professor at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. He studies the role of racism, masculinity, and disinvested neighborhoods with regard to their impact on health. His research explores the intersection between history and public health.