The problem with the surgeon general’s controversial coronavirus advice to Americans of color
Adams’s remarks caused controversy, with his critics accusing him of discounting the effect systemic racism has had on Covid-19 deaths.
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams is facing criticism for controversial remarks he made during a White House coronavirus press conference on Friday, during which he discussed how communities of color can fight the spread of coronavirus and asked them to observe social distancing protocols “for your big mama.”
Adams made the remarks as he worked to address that the Covid-19 death rate is higher for Americans of color than it is for white Americans, pointing out, for example, that in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, African Americans make up 25 percent of the population, but 75 percent of the confirmed deaths.
But while Adams brought up a number of underlying issues that contribute to this tragic reality, his remarks on those issues were ultimately overshadowed by rhetoric many found offensive — and that appeared to suggest minority Covid-19 deaths were a matter of personal responsibility rather than part of an ongoing crisis public health experts have said they are struggling to control.
Adams, who is a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force and often speaks during its daily briefings, ended his remarks Friday by telling communities of color they “are not helpless” in working to limit the spread of the virus. After prescribing social distancing and hand-washing, the surgeon general said:
“Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. And call your friends and family. Check in on your mother; she wants to hear from you right now.
And speaking of mothers, we need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you to understand — especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.”
Adams’s comments swiftly received sharp pushback from progressive commentators. Given that this kind of rhetoric has generally not been targeted at general audiences or white communities, it implicitly seems to hold people of color to a uniquely high bar.
When Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, asked Adams to respond to criticism that his language was “offensive,” he said he was simply trying to be targeted in his communication.
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