Black Caucus moves to front and center in COVID fight

Greg Nash

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are taking leading positions in the House Democratic response to the coronavirus as data shows African Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers across the country from the pandemic.

In Louisiana, 70 percent of residents killed by COVID-19 were African American, though they make up only one-third of the state’s population.

In Michigan, blacks made up more than 40 percent of coronavirus deaths but are only 14 percent of the overall population. And in Milwaukee County, Wis., blacks comprised nearly 75 percent of the coronavirus deaths but only 26 percent of the population.

CBC members have staged numerous media and member conference calls in recent weeks to highlight the glaring racial disparity. And they’ve held tele-town halls to connect their constituents with health and government officials who’ve offered advice on how to navigate the crisis.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tapped Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a former CBC chairman, to lead the House’s coronavirus oversight panel, while Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — seen as the heir apparent to Pelosi — has been convening near-daily calls with members on topics ranging from relief checks and housing assistance to the massive small-business loan backlog.

“CBC members have been elected, in large part, to defend the least, the lost and the left behind throughout America, including communities of color,” Jeffries, who represents the hard-hit New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. 

“That is why it’s been so important to see tremendous leadership from the CBC in the midst of this pandemic,” said Jeffries, who added that it is in the “DNA of the CBC to fight for the most vulnerable among us.”

Jeffries has led calls featuring briefings and question-and-answer sessions from guests such as Vice President Pence and former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen. Bill and Melinda Gates joined a call this week about a potential vaccine.

But it’s been the voices of CBC members that have been the most poignant in the debate over Washington’s response to the pandemic.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from Detroit, gave an impassioned plea on a conference call this week, urging leaders to test everyone in the Capitol before putting lawmakers on planes headed back to Washington — a move she warned could hasten the spread of the disease among lawmakers and their constituents. Leaders quickly nixed the plan to call the House into session.

On an April 17 call, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the 54-member Black Caucus, challenged Pence and Anthony Fauci to “do better” to require states to report racial data on those who’ve been tested for the coronavirus. The two men replied that they understood the urgency of the matter, and CBC members say they have seen some progress since then.    

In a floor speech last week, House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) talked about how the coronavirus has struck close to home for her family: Her sister, infected with COVID-19, is dying in a St. Louis hospital. She urged her colleagues to support the $484 billion relief package signed into law last week that provided critical aid for hospitals and testing. 

On Wednesday, Pelosi named Waters, a former CBC chairwoman, to the Clyburn oversight panel.

“Almost every single member of CBC knows someone who has passed away from the COVID-19 pandemic, and all of our communities in one way or another have been adversely impacted in an extraordinary way,” Jeffries told The Hill. “This is a moment where the CBC has risen to the occasion responding to a crisis that has hit us intimately.”

The coronavirus is infecting and killing African Americans in the U.S. — particularly black men — at disproportionately high rates, according to available statistics released by just a handful of states and cities.

The racial imbalance can be traced back to systemic economic and health inequality in the African American community. Blacks have a higher rate of health problems such as diabetes and lung disease, making them particularly susceptible to this highly contagious respiratory illness. 

“America is in shock to learn about all the inequities in health in our communities that we have known for all of these years,” Bass said on a coronavirus call this week where the black, Hispanic and Asian caucuses rolled out legislation aimed at closing the health care gap for minorities. 

The bill calls for improving racial data collection, boosting federal funding for minorities living with HIV/AIDs and expanding mental health services for low-income people of color, among other things.

As a former health care worker in South Los Angeles, Bass said she knows African American patients are frequently discriminated against when it comes to receiving quality health care. She warned hospitals against prioritizing ventilators to COVID-19 patients who show better “long-term longevity,” saying that would directly harm blacks.

“We’re going to find in the long run we were denied respirators,” Bass added.

Blacks are also getting hit hard by the economic collapse spurred by the pandemic. They tend to be overrepresented in jobs and industries that have been hurt by COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown, including food services, customer service and office support, according to a report by McKinsey & Co. 

African Americans and other minorities are also filling many jobs that are on the front lines of the crisis, including grocery workers, delivery workers and nurses, making them more vulnerable. 

“Indeed, black workers will likely experience higher rates of unemployment as a result of the crisis and see more of their jobs impacted in the near term,” the report states.

On Wednesday, Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat and CBC member, called out the Trump administration during a call focused on the racial disparities related to COVID-19, including how the places where minorities live and work have contributed to the problem.   

“The current administration has done neither enough to protect these communities nor to address the causes of [environmental justice] disparities,” McEachin said.

Rafael Bernal contributed.

Tags Anthony Fauci Brenda Lawrence Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald McEachin Hakeem Jeffries Janet Yellen Karen Bass Louisiana Maxine Waters Michigan Mike Pence Nancy Pelosi Wisconsin

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