The U.S. surgeon general found himself on the defensive Friday after delivering his somber predictions during the daily White House press briefing about the coronavirus.
Jerome Adams expressed his doubt over the timing of the country “reopening” before he turned his attention to Black people — who preliminary data show, are disproportionately contracting and dying of complications from COVID-19 — and other people of color. Those alarming statistics were being attributed in part to the pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma that Black people suffer from more than other racial groups. Because of that, Adams said Black and brown folks should “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs” because, he added later, “We need you to step up.”
Adams then urged Black and brown people to consider their family members when they think about ignoring social guidelines like staying home or wearing personal protective equipment like masks. “Do it for your abuela, do it for your grandaddy, do it for your Big Mama, do it for your pop pop,” Adams implored.
If someone wasn’t listening closely — and even if they were — they might have translated Adams’ words as trying to blame Black people for the high infection rates reported in the community.
When PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor made Adams aware that his language had offended som people online, the surgeon general defended his words and said he meant no harm.
He even demonstrated that he, too, was inflicted with one of the underlying conditions — he pulled out his asthma inhaler — that exacerbate risks for Black people in particular.
But the problem was all in his choice of language, according to the criticism surrounding his commentary that conspicuously excluded any reference to the white people who have also been dying after testing positive for the coronavirus. To single out Black and brown people for alcohol, tobacco and drug use seemed to be narrow-minded at best and sunken self-hatred at its worst, some suggested on social media.
That kind of language was specifically directed at Black people more than two months after the surgeon general — who job is literally defined as “providing Americans with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury” — notoriously downplayed the severity of the coronavirus’ threat to public health.
Adams told the press corps that he has a Puerto Rican in his family who they call “abuela,” a Spanish word for grandmother. He also claimed he has a “Big Mama” and a “pop pop,” explanations that were happily greeted by President Donald Trump, who was standing nearby during Adams’ portion of the daily briefing.
Adams said all of this as data was still coming in that showed just how badly Black people have been affected by the coronavirus compared to other racial groups. By the beginning of April, Black people made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% Black, according to ProPublica. In Michigan, the state’s population is 14% Black and 35% of the coronavirus cases and 40% of coronavirus-related deaths were Black people. In Chicago, 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths are Black, according to WBEZ. In the surrounding Cook County, Black residents make up 23 percent of the population in the county, yet they account for 58 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.
To be fair, Adams did make clear that Black people aren’t biologically or genetically predisposed to get the respiratory disease. But, he added, they are “socially disposed” to contract it.
As such, reactions across social media ranged from people who said they sort of understood where he was desperately trying to come from; to those who expected nothing less from a surgeon general who they suggested was just the latest in a long line of Black Trump-co-signing cronies; to those who just shrugged it off as a random reference to Martin Lawrence’s successful “Big Momma” movie franchise.