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Public health and the African American Nation

By Masao Suzuki

A commentary on the tuberculosis outbreak in rural South Carolina

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has been criticized for its slow response to an outbreak of tuberculosis (TB) which has infected more than 100 people in rural Greenwood County, South Carolina since last March. More than 400 children at Ninety Six Primary School in Greenwood County were not tested for almost three months after TB was first reported.

Greenwood County is part of the Black Belt, named for the rich soil farmed by slave labor, which forms the heart of the African American Nation in the South. The national oppression that Black people face is most intense in the Black Belt South, even greater than other areas of the South. The poverty rate for Blacks, already much higher than that of whites, is even higher for Blacks in the African American Nation than other Blacks in the South. The infant mortality rate is also higher and the life span lower for Blacks in the African American Nation than Blacks living outside the nation but in the South.

The mishandling of the TB outbreak by the South Carolina DHEC is another example of the poor-quality government services and health care that are part of the all round economic, political, cultural and social oppression that African Americans face in the U.S.

I want to comment on two mistaken views in the left about national oppression. One incorrect view reduces national oppression to just a matter of racist attitudes among whites in general and white workers in particular. According to this view, if we can just overcome these racist ideas, then African Americans and whites can “unite and fight.” The problem is that there are important material differences in the lives of whites and African Americans, not just bad ideas. For example, African Americans are almost twice as likely as whites not to have any health insurance (19.5% vs. 11.1%). This is in part because many more whites (61.6%) than African Americans (44.6%) have jobs that provide health insurance benefits. White workers need to be won over to supporting demands for equality for African Americans, such as universal government health care, which would especially help African Americans, and also Chicanos, Mexicanos and Latinos, whose lack of health insurance is even higher than that of African Americans (at 30.1%) .

There is also a view that whites in general and white workers in particular actually benefit from the national oppression of African Americans. If this were true, we would expect to see a pattern where the more intense the national oppression is, the better off whites should be. But in fact whites in the Black Belt South where the African American Nation is based are worse off than other southern whites outside the Black Belt. An example of this is that the life span of whites is shorter, and the infant mortality rate among whites higher, in the Black Belt South than in other areas of the South.

This should be no surprise, for when the government doesn’t take care of public health, the tuberculosis bacteria doesn’t care if the body they are infecting is African American or white. So fighting national oppression is in the interest of white workers, because they face a common enemy: the wealthiest 1%, or the monopoly capitalists, who own and control the giant corporations that dominate the economy and control the government. But to upend the power of the 1%, we need an alliance between the working class and the national movements (the movements of oppressed nationalities such as African Americans, Arab and Asian Americans, Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Latinos, and Native Americans and Pacific Islanders). This alliance can only be forged by explaining to white workers that fighting national oppression is in their own interests and that they need to support the struggle for equality by Black people and support the right of self-determination, up to and including secession, for the African American nation.

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