Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
For decades, I used my social justice activism as an excuse to neglect my health. I took on cause after cause. But the whole while, I ate crappy food, rarely exercised, guzzled diet soda and rarely slept. I abused my body through stress and overwork.
Today, I am an African American man in my early 50s who battles high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and hypertension.
In other words, despite being a tireless and formidable opponent of systemic injustice, I am someone whom Covid-19 could easily kill.
The data is in: Covid-19 is hitting black America harder.
If the African American community is going to beat this virus – and create a pandemic-resistant black community – we are going to have to make big changes in both our public systems and our personal lives.
This virus is especially lethal to African Americans because it is – in effect – a pandemic jumping on top of multiple, pre-existing epidemics that were already ravaging the black community. Diseases like hypertension, diabetes, asthma and obesity make the virus far more deadly. And African American communities have those illnesses in numbers that are way out of proportion.
Why are African Americans so vulnerable?
Why is that? The reasons for poor health outcomes in the black community are complex. It’s not just workaholic crusaders like me whose health is sub-optimal. African Americans tend to work in physically challenging jobs – ones that demand much, pay less and offer worse health insurance. That’s a recipe for bad health right there. Also, doctors have been shown to give us shoddier services, even when we have health insurance. Additionally, we tend to live in neighborhoods where the stores sell less healthy food; fast food joints and liquor stores provide too many meals in urban America.
There are other factors as well. Many traditional “black foods” boast much more cholesterol and sugar than the US Food and Drug Administration recommends. And to some African Americans, healthier choices – like adopting a plant-based diet, exploring meditation, practicing yoga, etc. – may seem culturally alien. While navigating the perilous waters of racial bias, and simultaneously attending to often distressed families and communities, it can be hard to prioritize self-care. All of these factors together make African Americans more likely to have diseases that make Covid-19 deadly.
We need complex solutions – not false choices.
How can we fix the situation? Two familiar lines of thinking have emerged:
- The government needs to take more responsibility for ending the structural, systemic racism on full display right now in our health care and economic systems.
- Black people need to take more responsibility for our individual health choices.
All too often, these two options are presented as opposing solutions – or even warring points of view. And anyone who stresses #2 might be accused of blaming the victim and ignoring systemic racism.
But this is a falsely framed debate. We are not faced with an either/or choice. One can insist upon structural reforms, while also embracing positive personal lifestyle changes. I certainly intend to do both, going forward. After all, any meaningful improvement in black wellness will require major change – from both institutions AND individuals.
There’s no question: The system must change.
For an activist like myself, the need to change the system is obvious. Ensuring the health of African Americans means addressing the lack of access (food deserts), racial discrimination in healthcare and the epidemic of over-incarceration. It means confronting the legacy of structural inequalities that were devastating black communities long before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus. African Americans and our allies should intensify the fight for these reforms.
And we need to change, too.
That said: we must also take more responsibility for our own health. And boosting our immune health must be job number one. The science makes clear that our lifestyle choices – around sleep, nutrition, stress, and more – directly affect our ability to strengthen our immune system. And at a time when the virus is doing disproportionate damage to our communities, we need to ask: what can we do as individuals to get ourselves and our loved ones out of harm’s way?
For example, we can all vow to eat healthier. Drink more water. Move our bodies. Process emotional pain through therapy, rather than comfort eating or substance abuse. Commit to a spiritual or religious practice. Meditate. Rest. Get more sleep. And let’s not forget to practice gratitude. In the midst of this plague, every unlabored, unaided breath is more precious than ever.
Black influencers set the agenda for global culture. We can make the quest for personal health as cool as we have made the quest for personal wealth. Imagine if rap videos and black TV shows started showcasing push-ups, Peloton and healthy green drinks, in the same way that they often showcase fashion and foreign cars.
Black health & wellness already gaining traction.
Here’s the good news: there is already a vibrant health and wellness movement in the black community. (Did you know African Americans are the fastest growing demographic of veganism?) Those of us looking to make even the smallest improvements may find that the guidance and support we need is already out there, from authentic voices that speak to our experience.
From longtime practitioners and teachers to newer voices and advocates, here are some well-known ones:
- Jay-Z and Beyoncé: The increasingly plant-based power couple wrote the foreword to “The Greenprint: Plant-Based Diet, Best Body, Better World” by trainer and nutritionist Marco Borges. Jay-Z has also invested in black-owned companies that promote healthy lifestyles.
- Sean “Diddy” Combs: The rap mogul has joined forces with Arianna Huffington to promote sleep meditation through Audible.com.
- Queen Afua: Longtime holistic health practitioner, author and wellness coach specializing in health accessibility for minority women and helping people build an empowering lifestyle through food, self-care and healthy choices.
- Dr. Joseph Michael Levry: A scholar, composer, author, and speaker, Levry brings together healing traditions of East and West.
- Food Heaven Made Easy: Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones are the minds behind this food blog, podcast, online store and YouTube channel. They share recipes, cooking videos and nutrition tips teaching that making healthy recipes from scratch is possible.
- Jessamyn Stanley: A yoga teacher, body positivity advocate and author of “Every Body Yoga.” Through her yoga classes, blog and book, Stanley demonstrates that yoga is for people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.
- angel Kyodo williams: An ordained Zen priest, the founder of the Center for Transformative Change, and the author of “Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace and Radical Dharma.” Through her leadership and writing, she is a leading voice in American Zen Buddhism.
- Healhaus: A black-owned wellness center in Brooklyn that specializes in meditation and yoga classes. They are live streaming classes for free in the wake of coronavirus.
I commit to improving the system – and my own health, too.
The necessary structural reforms will take time to enact. But the lifestyle choices we make – about what we eat and drink, how we live, how we treat our bodies and manage our stress – can go into effect immediately. Big, racially-biased systems do limit our options. And yet even within those limitations, we have choices to make. I can’t control the words that come out of any politician’s mouth. But I can control the food I put into my own mouth.
After this pandemic, the work of creating a healthier, more pandemic-resistant black community must begin in earnest. In times of crisis, when our very lives are at stake, we have to put it all on the table. We need to use every tool and weapon at our disposal.
As for me, I am going to do a better job of protecting my own health and wellness. I will do so, not instead of fighting for social justice but so I can keep breathing and thriving long enough to win the battle.