Alford “Al” Young Jr. ’88 is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Sociology and professor of Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. Young’s research focuses on low-income, urban-based African Americans, African American scholars and intellectuals, and the classroom-based experiences of higher-education faculty as they pertain to diversity and multiculturalism.
In this Q&A, Young addresses the severity of the COVID-19 crisis for black Americans, particularly in Michigan. Michigan is ranked fourth in the country for having the most coronavirus-related deaths (4,915+).
How has COVID-19 affected your research interests?
Alford “Al” Young Jr.: I have spent the better part of my career studying the plight of socioeconomically disadvantaged African American males who live in large or midsized cities. I am interested in their vision of how mobility unfolds in America, especially the extent to which that broader vision relates to their conceptions of personal possibilities for advancement. In doing this work I pay a lot of attention to how these men talk about perceived challenges, problems, and struggles concerning the effort to get ahead. They argue that some of these factors are created by others (racism, public fears of black men, etc.) and some were created by themselves (black-on-black violence, etc.). The basic point of the research has been to assess how much whatever they imagine to be pathways forward are grounded in their broader understandings of pathways for Americans more generally. I seek to know whether they maintain distance or connection between how they think other Americans get ahead and how they think they might do so.
As I have been so thoroughly preoccupied with the plight of black men in urban communities, once COVID-19 surfaced my immediate attention turned to what would be going on for these men and the people in their lives, given what I already knew about their life experiences (especially their challenges in maintaining good health, access to health care, and struggles to find jobs that enabled economic survival). In short, I thought about the very things that became central factors and why COVID-19 is such a major predicament for the African American community. I now want to know how these African Americans imagine a future and their place in it given all of the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to the world.
Black Americans represent 13.4% of the American population (according to the United States Census Bureau), yet counties with higher black populations account for more than half of all COVID-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths, according to a recent study. Are you at all surprised?
AY: Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 on black Americans is not surprising to me at all. Whether we are talking about economic crises or health crises, black Americans suffer at higher rates than many Americans. Therefore, once this crisis surfaced, I was prepared to begin hearing especially bad news for black Americans.
Why are black communities more prone to the disease?
AY: Black Americans are already afflicted by the kinds of pre-conditions that make people more susceptible to the disease. In comparison to other Americans, black Americans suffer from high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Thus, their health status and their precarious access to health care create a dual problem (tripled by the history of mistrust that black Americans often have of health care systems and the conflicts they sometimes experience in trying to relate to health care personnel). Therefore, black Americans constitute a people very much in need of the health care system while also being much distant from it. It goes without saying that this is not a good situation when a pandemic emerges.
How does population density play a role in the spread of disease for black Americans?
AY: We know that the disease is transferable via social contact. The problem here for black Americans is that they tend to live in more densely populated communities, especially in large urban centers, and they live in closer proximity to each other within their households and domiciles. Therefore, the very effort to maintain social distance is a greater challenge for these people. Many more privileged Americans are better able to walk outside of their homes and maintain comfortable social distance or quarantine (at least to some extent) sick relatives within their homes. Furthermore, the more privileged can rely upon delivery services to get resources and goods brought to them. Many African Americans are not so privileged to be able to utilize such services. Instead, if employed they happen to be among the people who provide such services, thus enabling them to experience more social contact while navigating public spaces in the course of both getting to work and then doing their jobs.
How does technology, or lack of access to it, contribute to the problem?
AY: Technology is critical because, on the one hand, it enables certain people to get their work done. I refer here to the people—many of whom are white-collar professionals and their support staff—who can work remotely. Technology is also a source of information, and sometimes misinformation, that can either better inform or misinform people about what is going on with respect to COVID-19 (or anything else in society for that matter). One’s ability to understand and come to grips with how other people are grappling with COVID-19 rests in one’s comfort with technology. I have found that African Americans have much less access to such technology (and some do have access, but it is less consistent access than other Americans’). This plays a role in how they adjust to life under stay-at-home orders (whether that means lesser ability to engage in schooling or less access to information about COVID-19 and [lesser ability to] secure resources to combat its effects). This may not speak directly to how the disease is spread, but it certainly speaks to how people experience life with the existence of this disease.
As of May 19, Michigan has more than 51,915 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which the majority are from the Detroit area (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties). Why is Detroit in particular being hit so hard?
AY: Detroit is a crucial site for understanding the contemporary plight of African Americans. Residents of Detroit are mostly African American, mostly living in socioeconomic disadvantage, and most highly susceptible to the comorbidities that create greater risk of being unable to survive COVID-19. What many people may not realize is that most of Michigan beyond the Detroit Metropolitan Area is comprised of small cities or rural communities. Therefore, the only part of the state experiencing high concentrations of people, many of whom also experience severe health afflictions and the lack of material resources to manage them, is Detroit and its neighboring communities. Even Oakland County, which is comprised of some of the most socioeconomically privileged communities in the state, is home to many of the white-collar professionals who work in Detroit.
Michigan’s stay-at-home order was issued on March 23, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended this to May 28, although manufacturing workers were able to return to work this week. Are you predicting an uptick in COVID-19 cases once the state reopens?
AY: I hesitate to try to make predictions. As a sociologist I spend all of my time trying to figure out present-day conditions and circumstances and the role that the recent past has played in shaping them. However, I am concerned that a return to work, especially to jobs that require close social contact with various people, may result in an increase in the COVID-19 caseload. Black Americans who do work often do so in the type of service-sector economy that involves consistent yet close contact with people (delivering goods, working in retail businesses that involve close customer contact, moving about in warehouses and factories). These people do not benefit from having private offices in which to conduct their work, or jobs that enable them to work remotely. Therefore, there is a reason to be concerned.