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Skylar Herbert, 5, liked to jump in her mother’s arms multiple times a day to say “I love you.” Five-month-old Jay-Natalie La Santa enjoyed music and being rocked to sleep.
Now, these girls are gone.
Skylar and Jay-Natalie had some important things in common beyond their status as two of the youngest U.S. victims of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. They were both children of first responders. Skylar’s mom is a Detroit police officer and her dad is a firefighter, while Jay-Natalie’s dad is a New York City police officer. And they were both young girls of color.
While the media and thought leaders have finally begun to acknowledge how COVID-19 is shining a harsh light on the racial inequities already plaguing our society, there is less attention to how this crisis has exposed another ugly truth: the long-term marginalization of girls and gender-expansive youth of color. Unless we act now to close the disparities these children face in every aspect of their lives, we will deprive them of their rightful opportunity at a long and healthy life.
Youth of color and their families face significantly higher health risks associated with the coronavirus than their peers. According to the CDC, African-Americans accounted for one third (33 percent) of patients admitted to U.S. hospitals and a similar percentage of COVID-19 deaths (34 percent). Yet, African-Americans are just 13 percent of the U.S. population. Similar disparities can be seen among Latinx and Native American communities. The reasons for these disparities speak to the core of the systemic inequality at the heart of America today. They include historical and structural conditions, such as lack of equal access to affordable health care, lack of affordable housing and environmental conditions that force families of color to live in congested environments that are often bereft of an infrastructure to support well-being.
There is also the fact, as the stories of Skylar and Jay-Natalie show, that people of color of all ages are disproportionately working in frontline “essential” jobs that expose them and their families to the virus. Girls and young women of color in particular are overrepresented in industries like domestic work, care giving, hospitality and food services. If they haven’t lost their jobs, which also is happening to them in disproportionate numbers, these young people and their families continue to work in positions where they are facing a high risk of exposure every day.
If they have been at home sheltering in place like most of us, girls and gender-expansive youth of color are disproportionately suffering the effects of being confined to home environments that are either unsafe, unhealthy or poorly equipped for remote learning. Multiple reports suggest that rates of domestic abuse and sexual assault have risen during this crisis, with girls and gender-expansive youth facing the highest risk.
And if they are not fearing for their lives and safety, girls required to shelter in place face other unique challenges when compared with their brothers and male peers. For example, they are significantly more likely than boys to be forced into additional caregiving and housekeeping responsibilities, instead of studying or taking care of themselves. The current crisis also is undoubtedly exacerbating the relatively high incidence of anxiety and other mental health issues among Black and Brown girls.
Even before this pandemic, there was indisputable evidence that America has failed our girls and gender-expansive youth of color. In one example, as I documented in my book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, recent years have witnessed a surge in the number of girls, particularly Black and Latinx, in contact with the U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems.
The bottom line is that girls and gender-expansive youth of color are suffering in huge numbers, and yet largely out of sight, through this crisis. In a recent webinar I moderated, Tanisha “Wakumi” Douglas, founder of the S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective, said she is not surprised. “These young people are always the first punching bags in moments of stress like this,” she said.
We must take action now to protect all of our young people. For government, philanthropy and communities, the first step is obvious: People have to face reality and acknowledge that these inequities are an urgent crisis.
Next, we have to invest in solutions. In the short term, that means providing immediate relief to young people and their families to get them through this crisis. Grantmakers for Girls of Color recently announced a new $1 million fund to support the immediate needs of girls and gender expansive youth of color. We need more investments—not less—to provide them with critically needed support to protect their health and livelihoods in their homes and communities. And we must expand support for remote learning, ramped-up telehealth support for therapy and other healing modalities, and more emergency resources for girls and families of color who have disproportionately been hit by job losses in frontline industries and sectors.
Over the longer term, we must resolve once and for all to start tackling the structural problems that sustain the conditions for these stark inequities to persist. Now is the time to invest in community-based nonprofits that provide opportunities for girls and gender-expansive youth of color to develop their leadership and voice, pursue their dreams, and find the support they need to amplify their agency in this moment.
Now is the time to reform our educational and criminal legal systems so they don’t single out these young people for harsh punishments that derail their lives from an early age. Now is the time to reexamine our health care and healing systems to ensure that those most vulnerable to mental and physical distress are able to access the care they need. And now is the time to rethink our economy so that those workers who are deemed “essential” are paid and supported in a manner that reflects their true value to society.
Skylar and Jay-Natalie are not alone among the girls of color whom we have lost to this crisis. Let’s honor their memory by building a world where young people like them can find hope, healing and an essential opportunity to thrive.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the author of Sing A Rhythm, Dance A Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls (The New Press, 2019) and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016). She currently serves as executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color.