Sheffield: GOP state lawmakers say, ‘Let them die’ when it comes Blacks and coronavirus  

By: - March 2, 2021 10:31 am

The Spirit of Detroit now dons a face mask, April 6, 2020 | Ken Coleman

After the GOP-led Michigan Senate voted along party lines Thursday to adopt a measure to prohibit state government from using race and socio-economic factors while distributing COVID-19 vaccines, two African-American leaders who battled coronavirus are firing back.

State Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) last week falsely claimed that 20-year-olds in perfect health who “don’t speak English that well” have a higher priority for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine than residents 65 years and older and those with underlying health conditions.

Sen Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) on Thursday also criticized Detroit’s initiative last week to offer vaccinations to adults with disabilities, including those with vision or hearing impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and others, arguing that it was unfair to seniors in Brighton, a city in Livingston County, which is more than 96% white.

“The city of Detroit announced that people with a hearing impairment, regardless of age or comorbidity status, can now receive the vaccine because of the volume of doses the city has received. Meanwhile, just a few dozen miles away in Brighton, those of an elderly population still have not been granted access to the vaccine because their county ranks at the very bottom of the Social Vulnerability Index,” said Barrett, who announced in August he had coronavirus.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) last week began releasing data on race and COVID vaccine distribution, which shows that whites are almost twice as likely as African Americans to have been immunized.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a well-known Detroit civil rights leader, and state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) in separate interviews with the Advance blasted Republicans for backing an amendment that bans the state from using the Social Vulnerability Index recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was part of Senate Bill 114, legislation that spends $727 million in federal COVID relief money.

The measure passed by a vote of 20-15 after Democratic lawmakers tried and failed to pass their own amendments striking the language from the bill.

“What they are saying is, ‘Those poor Black folks don’t deserve to live,’” said Sheffield III, who contracted COVID-19 last March while visiting New York City. “‘We’re more entitled to life-saving vaccinations than they, so let them die.’”

Carter, who battled COVID-19 last March, called the GOP effort an example of “white privilege.”

“It’s almost laughable and so hypocritical for a group of people that didn’t believe or subscribe to the fact that [COVID-19] would just disappear,” said Carter. “It would just go away. So, you did nothing in the prevent mode, but now that you understand that there are resources, you want to be first in line.”

DHHS reported Monday that a total of 589,150 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 15,534 have died from the virus.

COVID-19 has been detected in all of Michigan’s 83 counties. But during the early days of the pandemic last spring, Detroit — which has a supermajority African-American population — was the hardest hit region in the state. Blacks accounted for 40% of the statewide deaths during the spring and early summer months yet they compose only about 14% of the state’s population. 

The percentage, however, has decreased during the fall and winter months. As of Monday, Blacks made up 69,101 or 11% of the state’s 589,150 COVID-19 confirmed cases and 3,437 or 22% of the state’s 15,534 coronavirus deaths. 

For the last year, Republican lawmakers have battled with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic, arguing against tough health restrictions aimed at stopping the virus’ spread. 

During a particularly heated legislative hearing in May, Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) argued areas outside of hardest-hit Southeast Michigan should reopen, despite a continued rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths in many areas in the state at that time. 

“This pandemic is not only killing people, the disease isn’t killing them, you know not letting them get back to work, and work safely, is killing them. I know specifically two individuals who have died from suicide. I am tired. … I am not Detroit,” said LaSata, who is white and announced in November she contracted COVID.

Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), who is African American, called LaSata’s statement offensive at the time. 

“I represent a community that has a very real, large number of deaths associated with this crisis,” he said. “So for you to talk about your reality is perfectly fine but to consistently scream that you are not Detroit is offensive and I would appreciate it if you would not do such things in committee.”

A recent Michigan State University study suggests that Black Michigan residents are more likely than white conservatives to adhere to COVID-19-related public health standards. 

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force. Across the pandemic, “the cumulative COVID-19 case rate in Black and African-American populations has been over 40% higher than the rate in White populations,” a portion of the task force’s interim report reads.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.