Senior Diversity Officer, Kathy Littles, PhD: Letter to the Community | COVID-19, America and Race

COVID-19, America and Race

April 28, 2020

Dear SMC Community,

Kathy LittlesI want to take a moment to share some thoughts as a member of our community who has been reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Our current shelter in place reality has revealed many things to me. It has revealed that self care is real and necessary. It has revealed that I must be vigilant in establishing and keeping healthy boundaries in absorbing the 24-hour news cycle.  Gone are the days when the news would provide background noise while I continued my work day. 

In the last three weeks, we have heard sobering news reports about how marginalized communities are at a higher risk of being impacted by COVID-19. To date, in New York City the Latino community has the second highest death rate among COVID-19 cases—according to the Department of Health. The American Indian population has also recorded troubling COVID-19 trends. Many are vulnerable and isolated. Even before the pandemic, the Indigenous population faced a healthcare system that lacked basic resources. The pandemic has also unveiled racist and xenophibic terror directed toward Asians. COVID-19 has revealed where we are socially, culturally, and economically in the United States; a sobering reality indeed.

The virus has impacted the Black community particularly hard. A preliminary CDC report examining data from 14 states acknowledged that 33% of hospitalized coronavirus patients were Black, a striking figure given that African Americans are only 13 percent of the nation’s population. Three weeks ago these were just numbers to me until I had a personal experience that, as some would say, “brought it home.”

In March, I lost a very close extended family member. The doctor stated that it was a heart attack, but we have questions. I have read countless studies on why African Americans are being diagnosed and dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates. The medical reports state that African Americans disproportionately suffer from preexisting conditions, which have made us more susceptible to the virus. But I would add that we cannot begin to talk about our predisposition to these preexisting chronic conditions without acknowledging that systemic racism, economic disparities, environmental racism and food deserts where access to consistent fresh healthy food is difficult, are also preexisting conditions.  

Furthermore, let us not forget that historically many in the African American community have at best an adversarial view of the medical field in general, and rightfully so. Often our experiences in the doctor's office (if we are lucky to visit one) are negative, and many times our symptoms are minimized or ignored. This has happened to me on several occasions. Remember the Tuskegee Experiment? Did you hear about the two French doctors who suggested last week that perhaps COVID vaccines be tested on African bodies? The disproportionate number of COVID-19 diagnosis and deaths for African Americans is complicated and nuanced.  

The great migration, told so beautifully in the book The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the disbursement of the Black population in the cities where we see huge COVID-19 numbers: Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York etc. I am not offering these examples as excuses, but I think it is incumbent upon us to take a more holistic view of this complicated crisis that cannot be understood or solved with a one-size-fits-all explanation, and certainly not with blame or shame. I think writer Charles M. Blow has posed an important question: “We’re all in this together, but will we all emerge from it together?”  

I serve as the co-chair on the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence. Recently, the committee added a guide to Equity and Inclusion during COVID-19 the CCIE webpage. Among the observations, it encourages community members to be advocates for students with fewer resources. As we navigate what will most likely be difficult days, it is critically important to remember that because of long-standing historical inequities that are exponentially exacerbated by the current public health crisis, the challenges ahead of us may be profoundly more difficult for some in our community. Let us remember who we are—an institution grounded in the Lasallian Catholic mission where Inclusive Excellence calls for us to be guided by social justice, cultural humility, and engaged citizenship. What I have found to be helpful is to use critical thinking with a lens focused on compassion, empathy, and action; with my finger on the pulse of history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us go forward together in the spirit of empathy, understanding and love.

Sincerely,

Kathy Littles, Ph.D.

Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Senior Diversity Officer