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Why Fat Black Lives Must Not Really Matter

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Lynne Sladk

It's a sure sign you've reached maturity in life when you stop trying to have it both ways. As an adult, you shouldn't expect to be able to eat all the ice cream in the fridge every night and still avoid the long-term health effects of a poor diet. And yet, when it comes to COVID-19, it's as if many in the black community who suffer disproportionately from comorbidities expect the entire country to remain closed until they are no longer at risk of COVID-related illnesses.


Such was the substance of the heated rants of a Rutgers University professor who last week blamed "Trump supporters" and state officials in Georgia, Utah and Florida who are beginning to lift the restrictions on commerce and social isolation put in place as emergency measures to stem the tide of the virus. Brittany Cooper, a tenured professor in the dubiously named Women's and Gender Studies Department, blamed it all on the white man, stating in a rage-filled Twitter rant, "Not only do white conservatives not care about Black life, but my most cynical negative read of the white supremacists among them is that they welcome this massive winnowing of Black folks in order to slow demographic shifts and shore up political power."

By "massive winnowing of Black folks" Cooper was referring to the fact that as many as 80 percent of the reported hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Georgia occurred among African Americans. But at a reported total of 1,035 deaths thus far in Georgia attributed to COVID-19, even if all of them were African American (they are not), that would hardly constitute a "winnowing" of the black population. Georgia's African American population is roughly 3.5 million, and the leading cause of mortality for African Americans in Georgia is heart disease. In 2017, nearly 18,000 Georgians died of heart disease, and African Americans, at roughly 31 percent of the Georgia population, accounted for nearly half of those deaths -- or 9,000. In other words, heart disease is 10 times more likely to kill African Americans than COVID-19.


And yet, not one of those prognosticators would even think about advocating closing down businesses offering fried foods, confectionery items or barbecue because black people are at higher risk of contracting deadly heart disease from poor dietary habits. In fact, when in 2019 neighbors in a Houston suburb formed a coalition to petition the city to shut down the black-owned Turkey Leg Hut because of concern over noxious fumes emanating from the establishment's meat smokers, local black leaders protested that the voiced health concerns of the (mostly white) neighbors masked a racist vendetta against the Hut's black business owners.

Again, as a mature adult, you tend to learn you can't have it both ways. And yet, Cooper persists. As if suppressing a glint of self-awareness -- as in awareness of the preventable underlying condition that increases not only all-cause morbidity but also the comorbidity associated with increased rates of critical infection and death from COVID-19 -- Cooper Twitter-shouts: "Black Lives Matter. Black Lives with hypertension, diabetes, and asthma matter ... All Black Lives Matter. Fat Black Lives matter."

But she doesn't really seem to believe that. If she did, perhaps she would sue fast-food restaurants to prevent them from reopening in black neighborhoods until there is, say, a 70 percent reduction in diabetes, hypertension and obesity among black folks. That form of protest would seem to be more congruent with her self-righteous contention that black lives matter. But the glint of self-awareness quickly dims in the opportunity for political invective.


Cooper is hardly alone in spilling her misplaced ire into the Twittersphere. When U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a black man, advised African Americans this month to take preventative measures to address the COVID-19 threat -- including, horror of horrors, "avoid(ing) alcohol, tobacco and drugs" -- he was widely criticized for pandering to African Americans. Adams was excoriated by PBS NewsHour's White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, for "offending" African Americans because he used informal and idiosyncratic speech, urging people of color: "We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop."

It made no difference that Adams himself has acknowledged on several occasions that he, too, suffers from underlying conditions, including asthma and high blood pressure, which he attributes to a "legacy of growing up poor and black in America."

It would be absolute pandering of the most cynical variety for health officials to fail to advise African Americans of their increased susceptibility to COVID-19 given disproportionate rates of comorbidity factors among blacks. And it would be downright criminal for a responsible surgeon general to fail to suggest practical means of strengthening our health in the midst of this pandemic. But that would be true only if fat black lives really mattered.


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