The following is an audio story featuring voices from the Madison and Milwaukee community discussing the racial inequities in recent COVID-19 data.

Transcript of the story

A rapidly growing body of coronavirus data is highlighting racial inequities across the nation. In Wisconsin, as of April 27, Department of Health Services data show that 27% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 44% of people who have died from it are black. These numbers are troubling, given that black people here make up only 6.7% of the population.

The most significant disparities are occurring in Milwaukee County, home to Wisconsin’s largest black population. While only one of every four people is black, they make up one out of every two people that die of the coronavirus.

In the words of Sabrina Madison, the founder of the Progress Center for Black Women in Madison, which serves as a hub of community and opportunities for black women to transform their lives and families, “we’re at the bottom of the mountain — you’re trying to climb the world’s craziest and most dangerous mountain. We are so ill-equipped to get to the peak. If all it took to get to the peak was healthier food, healthcare access, not a hoard of damn liquor stores up the street from you, better education, better housing and an overall healthier environment, we would hit the peak, just like everybody else is. But we’re at the bottom of the mountain. Period. If you’re a black person and you’re trying to climb out of poverty or low education or low whatever, racism begins to choke you on the way up.”

Madison is only one of the members of Wisconsin’s black population who is feeling the disproportionately negative impacts of the coronavirus on minorities.

Community leaders, social justice advocates, and health experts alike are not shocked by the new data. According to Norman Davis, the City of Madison’s Civil Rights Director, the effects that COVID-19 is having on black people is “just one more chapter in this book of the legacy of oppression.”

“Throughout history, the government has either actively or passively participated in discrimination and helped to create the disparities that we see, whether that is related to transportation, related to access to health care or even personal networks and income. Those historic systemic disparities are driving the disparities that we’re seeing in COVID-19,” said Davis.

Milwaukee has consistently topped lists of the most segregated cities in America. This did not occur naturally and for no reason — and it is the root of many of the inequities that the marginalized populations in this area face today, said Maddie Johnson. Johnson is a UW Population Health Service Fellow. She is located in Milwaukee, and her work focuses on health equity and policymaking.

“The idea of structural racism, that purposeful government policies prevented African American communities from accessing opportunity, we can see that specifically in Milwaukee,” said Johnson.

In the 1930s, redlining — or calculated maps that were put out by the government — highlighted that some neighborhoods in the city were more valuable than others, often based on race. In the 1960s and 70s, banks turned down loans to black families, often forcing them into neighborhoods with more substandard housing, said Johnson.

“If someone lives in substandard housing, and likely they’re a renter because they’re denied a loan to buy a house, they’re going to face more environmental health risks, such as higher rates of asthma and higher rates of lead poisoning, then you have less upward mobility in society,” said Johnson. “Not only do you probably live in a neighborhood where you have less access to educational opportunities and health care, you also might be dealing with more health issues.”

Among those at highest risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 are patients with other serious health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Over 40% of black people have high blood pressure, among the highest rates in the world, according to the American Heart Association. To compare, about a third of white Americans have high blood pressure. Similarly, African-Americans tend to have higher rates of diabetes.

The higher risks black people are facing have nothing to do with biology, and can’t be blamed on cultural differences, said Amelia Harju, who also works as a UW Population Health Service Fellow.

“COVID-19 disparities are examples of racial inequities because they’re unjust, unfair and preventable. The underlying reasons for why they exist are rooted in racist histories, structural racism, differential access to opportunity, discrimination and things like that,” Harju said. “They’re not due to biology or cultural differences.”

Another factor putting black people more at risk of the coronavirus is the disproportionate rates of incarceration. Similar to the coronavirus outbreaks seen in nursing homes and cruise ships, individuals who are incarcerated are at higher risk of getting COVID-19 and spreading it. Prisons in Wisconsin are extremely overcrowded, and black people are more likely to be incarcerated than white people.

Of the 41,000 people incarcerated in Wisconsin, 38% are black, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Inside Milwaukee is one of the “most incarcerated” zip codes in the nation — a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown.

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As of April 30, 18 inmates across the state have tested positive for COVID-19. Nationwide, there have been 1,313 incarcerated people who have tested positive and 30 who have died from coronavirus, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Health officers can make sure that justice-involved populations are protected. Basically, they have the ability if they want to take over the COVID-19 response within jails and prisons to ensure safety,” said Harju. “Health departments can take over that response instead of the sheriff’s office. They have that option, but a lot of people aren’t aware of that. Coronavirus has left really high death tolls in other types of congregate living facilities, and it’s extremely likely that we’re going to see the same thing happening in Wisconsin state prisons if we don’t act now.”

Harju, a public health professional in rural Wood County, emphasized that racial inequities are not just an urban issue.

“I really can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say race isn’t a problem here. But when you do look at the data in cases where it is actually available, the racial inequities are pretty much everywhere, just like they are in urban areas” Harju said.

In places like Dane County, where the COVID-19 data isn’t currently showing the same significant disparities as Milwaukee, vulnerable populations are still experiencing inequities in other ways.

“Even if we’re not seeing obvious racial inequities in COVID-19 cases in Madison or other places right now, it is still exacerbating a lot of other serious health and social issues like food insecurity, housing instability and unemployment,” said Harju. “And all of these factors tend to impact people of color more than white people.”

Reverend Marcus Allen, who leads Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Fisher Street in Madison, serves not only as a listener and resource for his congregation, but is also a social justice advocate and community organizer. Mt. Zion has the largest black congregation in Madison with 500 members. In his leadership position, members of the community have come to him expressing their challenges making ends meet during this time.

“As they say, when the white man gets the cold, black people get the flu,” said Allen.

Allen’s mother was diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered, but not without hassle. She went to the doctor on three separate occasions beginning March 19, and was never tested for COVID-19 until April 10, according to Allen.

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“Whereas, I was on a zoom call with a white lady who said she called her doctor, and within thirty minutes to an hour, he had her in the doctor’s office being tested to see if she had COVID-19, thank God it came back negative, but within an hour or two she was being tested,” said Allen. “Those are disparities that I see, that people are getting different treatment. I don’t know if it’s based off the doctor and based on zip code, whatever it may be, but that’s what I’ve seen happening and experienced myself.”

Sabrina Madison, founder of the Progress Center for Black Women, has also felt she wasn’t treated fairly by the healthcare system.

Madison said she often feels disregarded and not believed by medical professionals. Whenever she visits the doctor, she prepares to advocate for herself by researching what she thinks may be wrong and knowing what tests to ask for beforehand.

“I remember having one of my white friends I used to work with in Milwaukee go with me and literally speak what I was going to say, and I feel like the experience was so different,” said Madison. “Now I’m having [friends] who are losing their parents or an uncle or grandmother because they either couldn’t get tested, or by the time they got tested, it was so bad that they couldn’t recover,” said Madison.

One common theme among the black community in Madison is the unity and support they are showing one another during this crisis.

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For example, Madison came across a mother with a high-risk pregnancy asking where she could get her clothes washed on Facebook. When Madison began to talk with her, she learned that the woman didn’t have access to WiFi or phone service, and had to stand outside her leasing office to use a texting app on her phone. Madison organized her a ride to a doctor appointment.

The Progress Center for Black Women has also been working with families and Charter to set up internet payment plans so that families can get their internet restored to do work and online schooling.

In collaboration with Pastor Marcio from Lighthouse Church, Pastor Allen developed the Psalm 46 Relief Fund, which has raised $110,000 to date to help people in need pay their bills, and in addition, Mt. Zion is planning to implement mental health resources and money management classes. They also continue to provide food to the community with their food pantry. Their church services have increased their reach from 500 people to 6,000 or more each week since transitioning to Facebook.

Civil Rights Commission Director Davis said that they are actively developing solutions with the marginalized populations in mind.

Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission, which has some of the oldest civil rights legislation in the nation, provides a complaint process for the community. Individuals that feel that they have witnessed discrimination or are being discriminated against because of their identity — for example, if an individual felt that they were not getting adequate treatments for their health condition because of their race or income level — “they can bring that concern to the city of Madison and we will follow up with them,” said Davis.

In the past, the commission has dug into discrimination in housing, employment, policing, traffic stops, alcohol licensing, loitering and arrest and conviction records.

The effects of institutional and structural racism that African Americans experience today is still being felt, said Davis. He said that even though harassing and discriminatory behavior is legislatively banned, those attitudes and behavior still exist.

“It’s really holding individuals accountable, working together and keeping our eye on this issue. We can’t get distracted by the next popular issue or concern that comes along. You have to be focused on moving the needle on these issues,” said Davis. “It’s really focusing on the underlying factors.”

Davis grew up in Flint, Michigan and moved to Madison in 1989 to study engineering at UW-Madison. In a Q&A with the Wisconsin State Journal, Davis said that living in several neighborhoods in Madison, he felt “disconnected” but holds on to that feeling to drive his work.

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In a 2019 interview with the Nation, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that while Madison’s reputation for being left-leaning and progressive might be true, it is only to an extent, stating that, “White people feel that we live in a very progressive city that is really good for people, and that is really not true for people of color and particularly for African Americans.”

Echoing Mayor Conway’s sentiment, Davis said that there are two sides to Madison — “there is what is said and what is done.”

A community that is in all facets a great place for everyone to live is a vision that Davis hopes to see come to life.

“The effects that COVID-19 is having on people of color is — unfortunate doesn’t really get at it as an adjective,” said Davis. “There’s a saying that if people knew better, they would do better — and that’s false. In the last 50 years, we have known that the data is there. We know that the oppression problems are there. But that doesn’t prompt a wave of change. It’s only those that truly care that are willing to make the sacrifices for change that are actually going to make change.”