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Anti-racism and pro-aging: A Stonewall legacy

Anti-racism and pro-aging: A Stonewall legacy
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June is Pride month for LGBTQ communities and a time when we’re celebrating a historic victory with a Supreme Court ruling banning workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people. As two white gay men leading national organizations focused on older Americans, the killing of George Floyd and many other manifestations of systemic racism in this country have reminded us of a lesson we must not forget this month or in the weeks, months and years to come: There can never be equity and equality for older Americans, for LGBTQ people or for anybody else until we dismantle white supremacy in this country and replace it with racial equity.

Work on racial justice cannot be at the margins for those of us who work to improve the lives of older people in this country — instead, it must be woven into the very fabric of everything we do.

This is not a lesson we learn only from the current street protests and the racist attacks that sparked them — It is also a lesson taught to us by our elders. The civil rights activists and freedom riders who fought Jim Crow and racial oppression in the 1950s and 1960s are now elders in our communities. So are the young people — many of them people of color and TGNC (transgender and gender non-conforming) — who led the Stonewall Uprising for LGBTQ liberation in 1969. The veterans of Stonewall, like the civil rights activists who came before them, put their lives on the line not only to protest police violence, but also to fight back against overarching systems of oppression that remain in place to this day. Those systems, and systemic racism in particular, cause profound damage to older Americans. 

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One in five older adults in this country is a person of color; in 20 years, that number will grow to one in three. Because of systemic racism, many Black and brown older Americans are prevented from thriving. They enter their later years with the highest rates of poverty, the lowest incomes, and the most severe health disparities of all older people in this country.

The gross disparities among Black older Americans, and older Americans of color as a whole, have been put on vivid display during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has hit older Americans hard — but it has hit Black older Americans the hardest. In New York City, Black people are twice as likely as white people to die of COVID-19; the death rate among Black people in New York City (92.3 of 100,000 population) and Latino people (74.3) is dramatically higher than that of white persons (45.2). These stark racial disparities are not limited to NYC. In Louisiana, African Americans account for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths but only 33 percent of the population. In Michigan, African Americans make up 14 percent of the population but 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths. And on and on.

While some have attributed these gross disparities to higher levels of hypertension and diabetes among Black Americans, the federal Centers for Disease Control itself recognizes that much of this disparity is due to institutional racism that results in residential segregation, Black people living in densely populated areas that lack nearby grocery stores and medical facilities, denial of decent health care over a lifetime, and inequitable access to testing and treatment during the pandemic. 

To put a fine point on it, Black and brown older Americans are being killed by the same systemic racism they fought as young people. All older Americans suffer in the process. A deadly health threat that disproportionately sickens and kills older people as a whole gets minimized by the president and his followers, who decide that it’s worth the sacrifice of Black and brown lives to ignore the pandemic in favor of political posturing and reckless disregard of public health.

In the face of these stark realities, we say: Black Lives Matter. And we pledge to ensure that the organizations we head — the American Society on Aging and SAGE — will stand up for Black and brown older people and stand against systemic racism. To that end, we have endorsed the NAACP’s #WeAreDoneDying campaign and its call for policy reforms to end racist policing. 

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And we are determined to advance a broader policy agenda that is both anti-racism and pro-older Americans. This agenda insists on equity in health care and elder services for Black elders and elders of color and will fight for an equitable distribution of resources to organizations working with older Americans in people of color communities. It calls for reinforcing Social Security and the broader safety net that is critical to the financial security of Black and brown retirees (many of whom toiled for years as low-paid essential workers and rely exclusively on Social Security in retirement). It demands equitable access to affordable housing and nutrition for low income older Americans, who are disproportionately Black and brown. And much more.

Most of the protesters in the streets today are young people. But make no mistake, the movement against systemic racism and for racial equity is multi-generational. Older Americans have a huge stake in its success.

Many carry the burden of segregation, live a life of cumulative disadvantage and now are bearing witness to the suffocation and killings of this generation. Today’s struggle can, and must, redeem the brave sacrifices of so many who fought valiantly for civil rights a half century ago and who rose up for LGBTQ liberation at Stonewall.

Ending white supremacy and establishing racial equity is an agenda that benefits all older Americans. During this month of Pride, we pledge to honor our elders — including the brave pioneers at Stonewall on whose shoulders we stand as gay men — by fully engaging in this historic struggle for an America where all people can thrive and where Black Lives Matter.

Michael Adams is CEO of SAGE, the oldest and largest organization in the country dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults.

Peter Kaldes is President and CEO of the American Society on Aging.