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Reopening Economies Prematurely As A Civil Rights Issue


As the coronavirus spreads, and as we learn more about it, it's become clear that some groups are more vulnerable than others. Elderly people with underlying health conditions, of course - but the data also shows that people of color are getting sick and dying from complications from COVID-19 in higher numbers than the general population.

That's true in states that were slower to shut down or have been among the first to begin reopening. In Mississippi, for example, African Americans make up 38% of the population, but more than half of those infected are African American.

Ten days ago, a group of civil rights leaders wrote an open letter encouraging African Americans to stay at home in states that were beginning to reopen. Sherrilyn Ifill was one of the authors of that letter. She's president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And we reached her today in her home office in Baltimore.

Sherrilyn Ifill, thanks so much for joining us.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So the letter called reopening in these states an act of, quote, "reckless disregard for the health and life of black residents," unquote. So I think that we can discern from that that you consider this a civil rights issue. Is that so? And if so, why?

IFILL: Well, I absolutely do. It pulls the thread of all of the civil rights issues we know that account for the disparities that are being experienced by black people in this country in terms of COVID infection and death - the disparities that result in African Americans disproportionately suffering from diseases like diabetes and heart disease and other diseases that make one vulnerable to COVID.

It's also true that African Americans have not had access at the same levels to testing. We are seeing accounts of African Americans who have died from this disease going to hospitals, being told to go back home, not being tested. This is very, very real. And the numbers are bearing it out. In Milwaukee, where African Americans are 27% of the population, they account for 70% of the deaths from COVID. This is quite stark. This is quite revealing. And this is a life-and-death issue for African Americans around the country.

MARTIN: I know that you and other leaders issue this letter saying that African Americans should stay home, but what is your message to state leaders in these states in particular where these disparities have come to the fore?

IFILL: Yeah, absolutely. The letter was really designed to speak to our own community. I mean, you know, Governor Kemp in Georgia and other governors made the decision that they would begin to reopen their states. We saw, of course, last week that even Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves reversed himself as the numbers began to rise in Mississippi.

But a number of governors, including in Florida and Georgia, have insisted on reopening. And we wanted to make sure that we spoke directly to our own communities because we also have to protect ourselves against the recklessness and the irresponsibility of political leaders who have chosen to open prematurely.

This has become a kind of savage and feral contest between politics and public health, and African Americans are caught in the middle. And we have to speak truth to power, and then we also have to defend ourselves. We think it's important that our communities hear that we are fighting for them but also hear from us our expectation and understanding that they must protect their families first and foremost.

MARTIN: Well, recognizing that so much of what is happening now is unprecedented, is there any case law that can be applied to this situation? Are you pursuing any litigation in this situation?

IFILL: Yes, we are in a number of areas. One that I think is really important and of interest is what we're doing in the schools area. There were a number of jurisdictions in the South that once they closed the schools simply ended instruction for African American children and stopped providing meal service, free and reduced lunch, for children who are dependent on that service.

We've also filed a series of voting rights cases, three in all now - Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama - demanding expanded access to absentee voting so that black voters will not have to make the choice that black voters in Wisconsin were compelled to make - to choose between their health and their life and their ability to participate in the political process. Of course, we've also filed suit challenging prison conditions and asking for the release of prisoners in Arkansas.

So we're threading through all of the different areas of civil rights law that we can to fight for African Americans through this pandemic and to try to ensure that we receive the protections that we need to make it through this terrible crisis.

MARTIN: Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Sherrilyn Ifill, thank you so much for joining us.

IFILL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.