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COVID-19 has exposed stark racial inequities in Illinois

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

The data is crystal clear: the novel coronavirus pandemic has impacted every Illinoisan but none more than those in our African American and Latinx communities.

The Illinois numbers are shocking, and the nationwide ones are no better. A study released in early May by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) showed that black Americans represent about 13 percent of the country’s population, but counties with more black residents account for more than half of COVID cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths.

As troubling as the data is, we know that COVID-19 isn’t creating these public health disparities, it is exposing them.

Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike has said that many factors — including preexisting conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes — are contributing to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans, making the “horrific” statistics “not totally unexpected.”

But the problem is multi-faceted and goes much deeper.

Illinois’ black and brown residents often live in more crowded, multigenerational homes, making isolating the sick and social distancing extremely difficult. They disproportionately work in essential, low-wage jobs in public-facing positions so they have greater exposure to the virus. And they frequently have less access to health care.

Dr. Ezike said that, in public health and government, there is an increasing understanding that the reasons for these disparities are longstanding “structural racism.” That is exactly what the IFT has committed to addressing, both internally and externally.

At the 2019 Convention, IFT members recommitted to the fight for racial justice by approving resolutions that include building awareness around issues of racism and bigotry, supporting initiatives like Black Lives Matter at School Week, advocating for a more diverse staff and leadership, and integrating the interests and concerns of underrepresented groups more fully into IFT’s organizational, political, and legislative agendas to have a greater positive impact on racial issues that reach far beyond our union.

We’re also providing training to staff and members to help each of us recognize our own socially-learned biases so we can overcome them in our professional and union work.

In collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the IFT’s Union Leadership Institute (ULI) offers “The Union Response to Student’s Stress and Trauma,” a three-day course that provides an in-depth discussion of historical trauma, the ways in which racial biases impact us and manifest themselves in our work, and strategies we can use to combat them.

The IFT has also created an Organizational Equity and Inclusion (OE&I) taskforce. This taskforce, made up of IFT officers, executive board members, and staff, is charged with guiding the union towards becoming an organization that prioritizes racial justice and solidarity within all of its processes, policies, and practices and uses its collective power to dismantle racist and oppressive systems that

rob people of their humanity.

The COVID-19 crisis has made doing the work of advocating for racial justice a dire urgency. For our black and brown communities, it’s literally life or death. Please join us in committing to be an advocate for much-needed change.

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