Bowens: Gov. Whitmer, You Don't Have a Plan For Black Communities, So Here's One

April 03, 2020, 4:46 PM


The author, a former Detroit News reporter and press secretary for Mayor Dennis Archer, is a local political and public relations consultant.

By Greg Bowens

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she's aware that black people are being infected with COVID-19 and dying at alarmingly higher rates in communities across Southeast Michigan. And while she's had "a lot of conversation around this," the governor hasn't revealed any sort of plan targeting outreach to black communities experiencing the spike.

On Thursday, I wrote a column in Deadline Detroit about disinformation about the disease in the black community, including rumors that the melanin in black people's skin would protect them from contracting COVID-19.

The following day, in response to my column, WDET's "Detroit Today" host Stephen Henderson asked Whitmer her reaction to the news that 40 percent of state deaths due to COVID-19 are African-American.

"Obviously Dr. [Joneigh] Khaldun and I have have had a lot of conversation around this, around why we seen such a spike in Southeast Michigan in particular," she responded. Whitmer said Khaldun told her it's hard to draw conclusions because 30 percent of those cases were classified "racially unknown." 

Poverty, and its associated stresses and physical ailments may make some more susceptible to COVID, she said.

"We need to be mindful as we think about policies, as we think about opportunities as we strive to really build equitable opportunity in our state and in our economy," said Whitmer.

Greg Bowens: "Everybody gets some kind of mask -- free."

In essence, while I think the governor is doing a fine job handling this crisis and is concerned about the black community, she has no plan to refine the message to minorities.

And while I cringe at her answer associating poverty with blackness, I'll let that pass for the moment and offer some quick communication solutions.

Here's my 12-point plan: 

  1. Ask cell phone providers to send out text messages urging people to stay home, along with and other important information. Everyone has a phone and they are always sending info to customers about overdue bills, offers and rewards. They can do this easily.

  2. Ask leaders of all sorts to push out messages to political organizations, community groups, block clubs and civil rights groups to contact supporters/members with information. This means motivating mayors, city council members -- every elected official -- to tap into their campaign staffs and start emailing, phone banking and talking across yards to their neighbors just like they do for an election.

  3. Reach out to the black business community -- i.e. associations, restaurant groups, etc. -- and have them talk to employees, provide non-surgical face masks and hand sanitizer for workers at drive-thru windows as well as social distancing strategies for working in close quarters.

  4. Flood urban radio stations with commercials. Collect popular social media videos from local DJs, social media influencers, etc... put some money behind them and get them on the air and in social media news feeds. 

  5. Reach out to the black creative class and get them engaged in developing messages -- 'Yo the Rona is real. Stay home!" Encourage the corporate community to kick in funding for this effort.

  6. Reach out to black churches and ask them to incorporate this into their Sunday online-service messages, as well as emailing their congregants.

  7. Create signage for party stores and gas stations -- lean on liquor distributors to help.

  8. Cash is dirty, so encourage people to handle with care and use debit cards more -- ask banks and debit card companies to waive the fees for using them during this pandemic. Remind them to wash their hands after using cash.

  9. Encourage food banks to collect over the counter cold/flu medicines and distribute with food packages to reduce people with mild symptoms from heading out a lot and buying single use packets from gas stations and party stores.

  10. Everybody gets some kind of mask -- free. Not the N95 or surgical ones, the ones you can make at home, a scarf, something. Encourage people to wear them out but stay back 6 feet anyway.

  11. Recognize that while people like the idea of saving others, they really care about saving their own hides. Stressing that there is no cure is not a powerful motivator either, when people hear the majority of folks survive the illness. Good odds but you don't want to be part of group that dies. 

  12. Make the sister, Dr. Khaldun, or Dr. J (as the gov. calls her on camera) the face/voice of the state government public health campaign in the black community. Put her face and targeted message everywhere like an aunt whose advice you can trust to keep you alive. Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, is already the person we see most from the state responding to this crisis on camera with you and has become a trusted figure in the black community. Let's use this as an advantage to helping people.

One last thing, governor: We all know race is a touchy issue. Don't be afraid to speak plainly. Just say what we already know. Black people are dying at an alarmingly higher rate and we've got to work together to change that.


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