As the country faces unprecedented health and economic crises, Black state and federal elected officials are making sure that issues important to African Americans are addressed in the battle against COVID-19.

In a briefing with African American media on April 16, Karen Brown Wilson, executive director of California Black Media, brought together U.S. Congresswomen Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, Assemblymember Shirley Weber and Board of Equalization member Malia Cohen to outline the societal and budgetary concerns that they are advocating for on both the state and federal level.

Congressmember Karen Bass (Courtesy Photo)

Bass (D- Los Angeles), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), also serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs where, she chairs the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.  Lee, the only African American woman in Democratic leadership, serves as co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee. In this capacity, she works to ensure that committees reflect the diversity and integrity of the Democratic Caucus.

Weber (D- San Diego) chairs the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety. She is also a member of the Assembly Standing Committees on Education, Higher Education, Elections, Budget, and Banking and Finance.  Cohen, who was elected in 2018, is the first African-American woman to serve on the BOE. Previously, she served from 2010-to-2014 on the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco.

The powerful officials covered a range of issues impacting Blacks as a result of COVID-19, such as the disproportionate number of deaths, the lack of testing among African Americans, and delays in funding to assist minority-owned businesses.

“We have a list of demands that we’re fighting for,” insisted Bass, who noted that some media are advancing the position that the underlying health issues and refusal to follow health protocols have led to a higher incidence of COVID cases in the Black community.

BOE Member Malia Cohen (Courtesy photo)

“But they did not say that the reason White young people are getting COVID is because they were vacationing in Florida,” responded Bass. “We are recommending to reject both of those lines of argument and to focus on comprehensive testing in areas, where there are large Black populations.

“We’re also calling for the essential workforce to have its protection because we know that is one of the reasons why the death rate is so high amongst African Americans is, because we’re the ones on the front lines – delivering the mail, at your grocery store, etc. – and we’re demanding data from the Center for Disease and Control and it should be given directly to community-based organizations to provide the public education that we need,” she said.

Bass urged people not to devote time to conspiracy theories about why Blacks are impacted by COVID-19 at rate that is nearly double their population. Instead, she recommended that such distractions be avoided and the concentration must remain on “testing, testing, testing, and also making sure that people get the health care that they need.”

Further emphasizing the importance of testing, Lee said that the CBC has established a Health Brain Trust focused on health strategies like mobile testing units that community-based organizations can utilize to deliver health care services.

“We need comprehensive testing with rapid results so we can make sure that the virus is not transmitted in disproportionate rates as it is now,” Lee said. “We introduced bills to mandate that the Department of Health and Human Services disclose race-specific data of the victims of this pandemic.

We need this data to stop the rapid transmission of this virus and the unfortunate deaths that are occurring.”

On a statewide level, Weber announced that the California Black Caucus is meeting regularly with Governor Gavin Newsom and his staff to outline the specific outcomes for the Black community that impact economic, educational and health care recovery. The goal, she said, is to match resources with the programming and budget allocated to aid African Americans.

Assemblymember Shirley Weber (Courtesy photo)

Another area of importance is assistance to minority-owned businesses and educational resources for Black children to ensure that youth are not negatively affected by lack of instruction.  The Black Caucus is collaborating with Black Chambers of Commerce and educational nonprofits to hold forums on these topics to educate the community.

“We’d like an inspector general to make sure that there is oversight as to how many African Americans – not just people of color, but African Americans – are actually getting the support that’s essential in terms of rescuing their businesses and doing a better job,” said Weber.

“We’re also focusing on education because clearly that’s going to be a major challenge. Our schools, up and down the state, have no consistent program of expectations or outcomes expected. Kids will have lost six weeks of instruction prior to the school closure that begins at the end of April.

“We are asking for a different kind of educational structure for the summer months and into the fall that could include freedom schools to make sure that the achievement gap is not permanent,” Weber added.

Cohen shared that California has extended the filing deadline to July 31 for small businesses with $1 million or less in sales. Also, she urged businesses, nonprofits and individuals struggling to pay property taxes to contact their county offices for assistance.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Courtesy photo)

“This is important to Blacks because a lot of our wealth is tied to our property, along with churches, who have nonprofit arms. We need to have an elevated conversation about our finances and how we can protect them,” Cohen said.

The officials also outlined their efforts to assist the homeless in light of the pandemic. Lee explained that the CBC requested and received $4 billion in funding for homeless women, men and children in the first CARES package that Congress passed in March for coronavirus relief.  An additional funding request is included in the legislation that is currently being debated.

“Homelessness has been a priority for the CDC for years and we are definitely focused on that. It’s a pandemic upon a pandemic,” said Lee.

Connected to homelessness is the 2020 census, which Bass said that that demographic must be counted and the CBC has formed a Census Task Force to ensure that people complete and submit the census form.

“In California, we are projected to lose a congressional seat, but if we do a real strong count, that won’t be the case. People need to understand the significance of the census for resources and representation,” Bass said.

Based on the response of the audience, the press briefing was well received and appreciated by the African American media. Wilson of the CBM said more briefings would be presented in the future.