Lloyd Omdahl: Coronavirus exposes price of bigotry

Lloyd Omdahl
Lloyd Omdahl

Many observers of the pandemic’s progress were surprised to discover that the coronavirus was killing a disproportionate number of African-Americans. It was surprising to me that they were surprised.

All of the signs of disaster for African-Americans have been lingering in the white society for years. The pandemic just exposed them.

It’s a life issue: In an analysis of the death count, The Washington Post reported that majority-black counties had three times as many infections and six times as many deaths as white counties. The astounding figures were well publicized in the media. This is a life issue of major proportions.

Many African-Americans are engaged in jobs that expose them to the virus. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, black people are overrepresented in the food service industry, hotel industry and other low-paying menial occupations.

But health is the major contributor to the high body count. Nationally, African-Americans are beset with high rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma and other chronic diseases, substantially the same as appear on North Dakota Native American reservations.


Inadequate health care: In the former slave states, “poverty and poor health are a legacy of decades of racist public policies that have excluded people of color from health care,” claims Jim Carnes, policy director of Alabama Arise.

Fourteen states, primarily in the southeast, have refused the federal offer to expand Medicaid so more low-income people could get health care. The federal government would pay 90 percent for the expansion and the states a mere 10 percent.

While the coronavirus exposed the hazards of being black in America, the problems of African (and Native) Americans have been chronic for years. They have experienced deficient schools, depressed wages, erratic unemployment, a discriminatory job market, housing segregation and fragmented families.

Civil War Army Gen. Tecumseh Sherman promised as he marched through Georgia that he would get every freed slave 40 acres and a mule. Apparently, the mule died and the 40 acres are a part of metropolitan Atlanta.

No bootstraps: In the meantime, we badmouth African Americans for not pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps when they have no boots.

In “Moral man and Immoral Society,” Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes the issue:

“… it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they had been denied the right to acquire.”

So where do we go from here? If this is a chronic problem, it will require a chronic solution.


Niebuhr is not optimistic.

He alleges that the ethical idealists “with their too unqualified confidence in religious or rational idealism, persist in hoping that some force of reason and conscience can be created powerful enough to negate or transcend the economic interests which are basic to class divisions. The whole history of humanity is proof of the futility of this hope.”

No committee, please: To obfuscate the problem, those opposed to doing anything for African-Americans will want to create a study committee. It will linger for a few months and eventually disappear,

Some are proposing reparations: paying the descendants of slaves damages for their years of oppression. Gallup has figures that say the idea will never fly.

It seems that a better proposal would be to give all black kids a paid scholarship to remedial and regular academies from kindergarten through college. Give it to them just because they’re black. After all, they’ve been denied it just because they were black.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former professor at UND and state lieutenant governor.

What To Read Next
Get Local