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Published 04/14/2020 | Reading Time 8 min 4 sec
By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder, director and editor in chief
If COVID-19 has taught America anything, it has confirmed that the nation still has a race problem.
A year shy the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a human tragedy that led to the mass burials of nearly 300 black Americans, archeologists postpone their planned April 1 test-excavation out of precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak. The test-excavation would have determined if the remains found in the cemetery’s colored section belonged to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims or were fatalities during the 1918 Global Flu Pandemic.
The U.S. has a history of filling mass graves with people of color; it’s a recurring theme that visits every century, dating back to the original 13 colonies.
For Millennials, and quite frankly most Americans, the idea of preparing mass graves in such iconic spaces as New York City is troubling. Because in some larger U.S. cities, communities are digging trenches for the fallen coronavirus victims — and most of them are people of color.
Numerous are the mass graves filled with the first inhabitants of North America — the indigenous natives. The Wounded Knee massacre at the hands of the U.S. 7th Cavalry in December of 1890 in South Dakota led to a mass grave burial of 250 indigenous people. But the massacre’s gravesite isn’t an anomaly; in addition to that horror are the enslaved Black American unmarked mass graves throughout the American south.
Both groups have experienced massive ethnic losses due to either viral pandemics or racial violence. Whatever the cause for these mass graves, the negative impact that white supremacy bears on communities of color — whether intentional or not — has always stood at the intersection for why the majority of people filled in American mass graves are and continue to be people of color. Hence, COVID-19’s pandemic is no exception.
The Wounded Knee massacre mass grave December 1890
Consider this: Left on the bookshelves collecting decades of dust are the untold chronicles of thousands of mass graves scattered like autumn leaves across this country. A lack of teaching the truth regarding the brutality of White supremacy towards communities of color for fear of imparting White guilt into American children is the pathology for the continued stagnation in lack of empathy needed to crush systemic racism to pieces.
Therefore, the lack of teaching the narratives of people of color creates a lack of empathy that later converts to policies that are inaccessible to many people of color: health care, quality education, economic mobility, etc.
Consequently, White supremacy is the reason why yet again mass graves are quickly filling with majority black, brown and indigenous people who succumb to the coronavirus due to the lack of access to healthcare or employment benefits. Moreover, the country’s broken educational system doesn’t lead the majority of students of color to better outcomes when in comparison to their white peers — leading to fewer people of color in the health profession.
Thus today in New York City, workers wearing protective gear prepare trenches on Hart Island for the growing surge of COVID-19 deaths. It’s a rearview look in the mirror to what it must have looked like when trenches were dug for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.
In Chicago, Black people have accounted for 72% of COVID-19 deaths, while making up less than a third of the city’s population. 7 out of 10 COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana are Black, while Blacks only represent 32% of the state’s population. Nationwide, Blacks account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths, while only representing 13% of the country’s population.
Mass Graves at Hart Island April 2020
Like Black Americans, indigenous North American populations have an adverse life expectancy gap when compared to their White American counterparts. Black and indigenous populations, on average, live five or more years less than White Americans. Some causes for shorter life expectancy are untreated diabetes, heart disease, and cancers caused by environmental injustice and food deserts — a societal symptom of White supremacy and systemic racism.
A trust gap caused by racist medical research practices, whereby Black and indigenous people were unknowingly used as test subjects historically, is one reason why untreated diseases have gone unchecked in these communities. On the exception of some tribes in Oklahoma, a lack of access to healthcare providers who look like them (black or indigenous who share their racial lived-experiences) is another reason for the disproportionate adverse health issues.
Since Brown v. Board of Education, America hasn’t done its due diligence in creating equal educational opportunities for these communities, pathways that would lead to more doctors and medical researchers of color to help aid in the closing of racial disparity health gaps.
Furthermore, America hasn’t taught its student populations about Wounded Knee and the 1921 Tulsa Race massacres that lead to mass graves filled to the brim with yesterday’s untouchables, people of color whose lives didn’t matter enough to a majority of America’s White population.
The only way to break the perpetual cycle of racial inequity in this country is to teach history accurately, so tomorrow’s leaders who sit in classrooms today will grow into compassionate doctors and medical researchers tomorrow. Moreover, the only way to make America more equitable for people of color — black, brown and indigenous — is school reform, starting with the history lessons — less sugar coating and more bitter truth.
I’ll admit the idea of school reform is frightening to most middle and upper-income Americans. They know that true equality will come at a cost for them. Whether it’s monetary or social-emotional, White Americans will have to deal with the guilt they’ve carried from their ancestors in-order for this nation to move forward compassionately.
But the cost of being a person of color in America, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak, is far harsher than any price the White majority has ever paid since this nation was conceived.
What COVID-19 has really taught America is that White people living today have become the very victims of their own collective doing. In 2020, they are on house arrest, social isolation, as the nation struggles to understand why and how a virus could do so much damage to the American economy, destroying their businesses and all sense of their privileged normalcy, while communities of color endure the most suffering.
Nevertheless, there are bright spots. Schools in Oklahoma, especially the Tulsa Public Schools District, are beginning to teach about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Hence now is the time for America to face its reflection in the mirror and begin teaching its bittersweet history, too. This is the call to action. It’s a chance for us to get it right for the next generation, a time to teach truth that will develop compassionate citizens. So when a pandemic arrives again, America’s race problem will no longer appear because it would have been cured in its schools.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder, executive editor, and director of The Black Wall Street Times, digital news media company that believes access is the new civil right. He’s also a freelance writer, appearing in TIME Magazine, Tulsa People, and Tulsa World. Frank graduated with a general studies degree from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and a political science degree from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and was a member and chapter president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society. Today, he is a blogger for Education Post, based in Chicago, IL, and a board member for the Tulsa World, Tulsa Press Club, and Tulsa’s Table. He is also a public school educator at a local community-led charter school and is a member of Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s Education Task Force for Equity and Inclusion. In 2017, Frank became a Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, a 2018 Black Educators Fellow and gave a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa.