Sanford: West Memphis mayor deserves a long-distance pat on the back

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 09, 2020 9:43 AM CT | Published: April 09, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Otis Sanford
Daily Memphian

Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford is professor emeritus of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and political commentator for WATN-TV ABC24 News. Contact him at o.sanford@memphis.edu. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon isn’t fooling around. He has seen too many people in his city of about 25,000 residents taking a cavalier attitude toward the novel coronavirus.

11 at Marion, Ark. nursing facility test positive for coronavirus

He’s seen groups of young men gathering on playgrounds for pickup basketball games. He knows about the packed churches for recent funerals and Sunday services. And he’s heard about groups congregating at street corners and elsewhere as if this pandemic is somehow off-limits to them.

As one of only two African American mayors – the other being Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris – in charge of running jurisdictions adjacent to Memphis, McClendon is also aware of mostly anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 outbreak is slamming black residents disproportionately harder than other racial groups in many places around the country.

The black population of West Memphis is about 60%, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates. But McClendon says it’s now closer to 70%.

Knowing all that, and with many residents in his town struggling financially without adequate access to health care, McClendon took what his mayoral authority gave him. He imposed a curfew in his city that went into effect Tuesday, April 7.

From 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., at least until the end of April, West Memphians are allowed outside their homes only to conduct essential business. And even during the day, residents are urged to stay home, and to practice social distancing whenever they must go out.

“No more parlaying,” McClendon told me Tuesday, about an hour before the curfew went into effect. That means, “No more hanging out with your buddies.”

And if the new rules are running counter to the wishes of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, so be it. State leaders have never really shown much interest in the fate of West Memphis anyway – except for the revenue it generates through Southland Casino Racing.

The Associated Press reported this week that Hutchinson opposes allowing cities to issue their own stay-at-home orders. The governor says those restrictions should be handled on a statewide basis and, so far, he is rejecting them.

But that’s not stopping McClendon from moving forward with his curfew. “I’m protecting my people,” he said. “He (the governor) might slap my hand, but we’re going to do it anyway.” 

The mayor’s reasoning is perfectly logical. “I’m in a very unique position here,” he said, referring to his city’s proximity to Memphis and several other suburban cities in Shelby and DeSoto counties. How the coronavirus outbreak affects one city, impacts every other city in metro Memphis.

“You can literally walk across the Big River Crossing from Memphis to West Memphis,” McClendon said. “We are all part of one metro area and we are doing our part right here in Crittenden (County).”

But aside from a possible dispute with an obstinate Republican Southern governor, it’s the negative effect that the coronavirus is having on black populations that has McClendon equally concerned. And for good reason.

No one really knows the full extent. Because the federal government and most states are not releasing data on the pandemic’s impact on African Americans.

In a letter Monday, April 6, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law urged Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, to immediately begin reporting racial and ethnic demographic data about the spread of the virus.

“This administration’s alarming lack of transparency and data is preventing public health officials from understanding the full impact of this pandemic on black communities and other communities of color,” the letter said.

“We are concerned that black communities are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and have lower access to COVID-19 testing which may cause delayed care, an increased risk of high mortality rates, and the acceleration of the spread of the disease in our communities.”

The issue was finally addressed by President Donald Trump and others on the White House Coronavirus Task Force at Tuesday’s briefing. Task force member Dr. Deborah Birx pointed out that African Americans are not more susceptible to the virus than other racial groups.

But because of other adverse factors, including health disparities and a general lack of access to quality health care, black Americans who contract the virus are more likely to have worse outcomes – including death.

Where more concrete data does exist, it shows troubling signs for African Americans. In Illinois, for example, African Americans make up 14.6% of the population, but 28% of confirmed cases, according to The Atlantic.

In Chicago, black residents account for nearly 70% of the deaths reported so far and 50% of confirmed cases, according to the Washington Post, citing data from the Chicago Department of Public Health. This despite the fact that black Chicagoans make up just 30% of the population.

Similar racial disparities are popping up in Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina. One key to getting more comprehensive and accurate information is improved testing.

In Shelby County, Health Department officials acknowledged Wednesday that a preliminary review shows black residents are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Of 238 of the confirmed cases in the county, 68% involve African Americans. And 71% of those who have died are African American.

Those depressing percentages are unlikely to change as more of the nearly 900 cases are studied. But even without complete data on race locally and nationally, it’s clear that longstanding racial inequities involving access to health care are a key reason black people are contracting the virus and dying disproportionately.

That and other systemic racial biases won’t be solved overnight. So, the best thing now for African Americans – indeed all Americans – is to protect ourselves through social distancing and better hygiene.

A small-town mayor like Marco McClendon in West Memphis understands that better than most. It’s why he has adopted a get-tough stance for his city. It’s why he has broken up the playground basketball games and is trying to stop crowded church gatherings. It’s also why he’s willing to buck the governor.

And it’s why this week, at least, McClendon deserves a long-distance pat on the back for putting the residents of his majority African American city first.

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