Opinion: How Systemic Racism Shows Up in California—And Why We Must End It

Denzel Tongue, who grew up in Oakland, writes that he “quickly saw first-hand how racism resigns people of color, and Black Americans in particular, to shorter, sicker lives.” Photo courtesy of Denzel Tongue.

June 18, 2020

Across the Bay Area and California, people are eager for things to feel normal. But for communities of color hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, this crisis has revealed an uncomfortable and urgent truth: “Normal” isn’t working. 

Local statistics show how COVID-19 has amplified existing racial inequities when it comes to different communities’ health outcomes. These inequalities are resulting in Black residents in three Bay Area counties—San Francisco, Santa Clara and Alameda—dying at twice the rate of any other race. Meanwhile, Latinxs account for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases in our region. In Alameda, for example, Latinx residents make up 43 percent of known cases but just 22 percent of the population. 

Growing up in Oakland, I quickly saw first-hand how racism resigns people of color, and Black Americans in particular, to shorter, sicker lives. When I was a child, my mother was diagnosed with a rare nervous condition that left her hospitalized. During this challenging time period, my aunt, with the aid of my father, took care of me. My mother eventually recovered, but within a few years I lost my aunt to preventable heart disease. 

My family is not an isolated case. Data shows that African Americans in Alameda County live roughly seven years fewer than the county average. In addition to high levels of chronic illness, decades of disinvestment have left Black communities facing disproportionately high levels of violence and poverty. This reality became crystal clear to me when I lost my cousin to gun violence. As I reflect back, I see the different pathways that we were placed on as kids. My cousin lost his mother at a young age to a battle with cancer and struggled to find stability in his life. In 2013, he was shot and killed at a First Friday event in downtown Oakland. 

The loss of so many family members far before it was their time has driven me to a career in health policy advocacy. Through a career in public policy, I hope to foster positive change and improve health outcomes for marginalized communities. That’s why I spent two years working with the California Immigrant Policy Center to help expand health care access to undocumented immigrants, who are more than five times more likely than U.S. citizens to lack health coverage because they are not able to enroll in Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance programs. It’s also why I applied to graduate programs in public health and policy. I’ll be attending the Goldman School of Public Policy in the fall and serving as a fellow with the California Initiative for Health Equity & Action.

I know I am not alone in working for change. I’m part of a storytelling initiative called Here to Lead that shows how, across California, boys and men of color are working in big and small ways to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities. It is often said that those closest to the problem are closest to solutions. Young people of color have seen with our own eyes how racial inequity can destroy communities and lives, and how problems like chronic illness, police violence and mass incarceration can keep our family members and loved ones from reaching their true potential. And we know what needs to change to make our communities healthy and strong.

If we act now, we can radically reshape our society in a positive way. Reducing the impact of and ultimately ending systemic racism has to be at the top of the list. 

My aunt and my cousin didn’t have to die. Their deaths were preventable, and so are the deaths and illnesses of so many people of color affected by COVID-19. COVID-19 shows the unequal price we’re paying for the old normal. We can’t go back. It’s time to create a new normal for communities of color. We have to make sure that everyone in Alameda County, the Bay Area and the rest of California can lead safe and healthy lives—regardless of their race, income or immigration status.


This story originally appeared in the California Health Report