African American Community Health in the Age of COVID

Dr. Saturu Ned on why the Black Panther Party survival programs of the past may be critical to the future of the African American community

An African American man with curly hair and glasses sits outside on a sunny day
Dr. Saturu Ned chats about the Black Panther party and the alumni network. Photo by Eric K. Arnold.

Public emergencies have a way of emphasizing existing disparities, whether economic or health-related. It’s no different with the current pandemic, which has not had equal impacts across the board, in terms of who’s been the most affected.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, as noted in a December 2020 National Institute of Health report. COVID-related deaths among this demographic are approximately 1/3rd higher than for Latinos, and more than twice of that for whites. According to the report, “The overrepresentation of African Americans among confirmed COVID-19 cases and number of deaths underscores the fact that the coronavirus pandemic, far from being an equalizer, is amplifying or even worsening existing social inequalities tied to race, class, and access to the health care system.”

A path forward to solving this crisis may lie in revisiting the community-based health initiatives of the past, such as the “survival programs” developed and implemented by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 70s. Although mainstream narratives around the Black Panthers have tended to focus on their militant image and violent clashes with law enforcement, the lesser-known survival programs had significant impact on community health for African Americans. Many former Panthers maintain these programs represent a truer measure of their legacy and hold much relevance today.

One such individual is Dr. Saturu Ned. For the Sacramento native and former member of the Oakland Panther chapter, the need for survival programs to enrich, empower, and heal the Black community is greater than ever. The programs, he says, were an incubator that “brought people who had never talked to each other together in the neighborhood. And then it created (a dynamic) to where they took over these programs. That was the whole purpose.”

I first became aware of Ned through Rickey Vincent’s book Party Music, which detailed the fascinating yet obscure history of The Lumpen, a funk and soul group commissioned by Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas to make music with a social and political message. Then known as James Mott, Ned was one of the group’s vocalists during their brief but impactful career, which saw them play rallies, benefits, and nightclubs, as well as a tour of the East Coast and Midwest. The Lumpen’s recorded output consists of just two officially-released songs, on the Black Panther Productions’ Seize The Time label. (A full-length live album was recorded, but the master tapes were lost or stolen.)

a black and white photo of a Black band performing and singing on stage
The Lumpen perform at Merritt College. Photo courtesy of ItsAboutTime.org.

A few years ago, I tracked down Ned, who still lives in Oakland, for a Black History Month article. He regaled me with stories of nighttime recording sessions after putting in a full day’s work printing and distributing the Panther newsletter, of touring the East Coast to drum up support for then-incarcerated Bobby Seale, and nearly causing a prison riot for voicing anti-cop lyrics during a show at San Quentin with Curtis Mayfield. Over the years, we’ve kept in touch; he’s become my go-to source for accurate accounts of Panther history. 

Now in his 70s, Ned retains the fiery spirit he possessed as a teenaged Panther recruit in 1968. He speaks with conviction, in a down to earth manner, but with the topical knowledge of a scholar who keeps up to date and informed. A dialogue with him usually entails more listening than talking, yet his imparted wisdom and knowledge always seems like a blessing. He’s most passionate about social justice, education, community health, and honoring the Panther legacy. 

Ned is living proof that the Panthers are not only still around, but still active in addressing systemic racism through community-based actions. In March 2021, Ned, Professor Steve McCutchen, and Catherine Campbell co-founded the Black Panther Party Alumni Legacy Network (BPPALN), a grassroots group composed of original Party members who connect historical approaches to racial justice and social equality with contemporary organizing efforts.

The BPPALN is one of several Panther-affiliated organizations active today, along with the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation (run by Newton’s widow Fredrika), and the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party, an East Coast-based group. Each of these organizations is dedicated to upholding the Party’s legacy, yet one area the BPPALN differs is their level of active engagement throughout the year. 

Since last August, the organization has been convening weekly “Educational Sessions” — free-to-the-public online discussions engaging former Panthers located all over the country. Topics have included historical overviews of Party chapters in Louisiana, North Carolina, Washington D.C., Houston, Detroit, Seattle, Illinois, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland. This past September, Ned was among the panelists at a seminar on Sickle Cell Disease in Los Angeles. During the Black Panther Party’s recent 55th anniversary celebration in October 2021, the organization organized several events, including a Lumpen tribute at Brooklyn Basin featuring Merritt College Professor Emeritus Dr. Melvin Newton and musician Kev Choice. 

Ned sees an urgent need to seize the time and proactively address community health right now – he’s aware COVID has impacted the African American community “unbelievably.” Those impacts have been grievous, he says, not just because of existing health disparities, but also because of historical racism within the healthcare system toward the Black community.

During the pandemic, the BPPALN addressed the issue by convening an educational session covering eight health-related issues impacting Black men and women. Diseases like sarcoidosis (an incurable immune system-related malady affecting the lungs and lymph nodes which can lead to organ damage) are frequently misdiagnosed, Ned says. In general, there’s not only a lack of understanding of health risks impacting the Black community, but also a lack of emphasis on preventative care such as regular check-ups and health screenings.  

“What we’re seeing is still the mistrust of the medical profession,” Ned says. “In particular, Black males will be bleeding and having all kinds of pains and never even go to emergency to check it out, much less a regular checkup.” He notes that Black women are more likely to get regular checkups, especially pregnant women, but says there’s a racial gap between white children and Black children when it comes to seeing the doctor. There’s also a glaring lack of health literacy in the Black community, he says. 

Speaking from the perspective of a typical Black person who doesn’t see the doctor regularly, Ned paints a picture of how lack of preventative care has significant consequence on community health. “I have no idea, what does (an) underlying condition mean? I would know if I went (to the doctor, but) I don’t know what to ask for. And I go to emergency when I’m sick. But other than that, I don’t get regular checkups. My kids don’t get ’em. My wife doesn’t get ’em. And me as a male, I’ve never had a colon (cancer) test, I’ve never taken a test to see if my lungs are okay. I’ve never had a(n) EKG. I never knew I had a heart problem.”

Ned’s anecdotal comments are borne out by clinical research. A Pfizer brief on health disparities in the African American community notes that “Compared to their white counterparts, African Americans are generally at higher risk for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.” The social determinants of health impacting African American youth include “unemployment, living in poverty, not owning a home, cost-prohibitive effects of trying to see an MD, smoking, inactive lifestyle, or obesity.” The brief goes on to cite a Cigna report that Black people “are 20% more likely to report psychological distress and 50% less likely to receive counseling or mental health treatment.”

Despite being at high risk for diabetes, African Americans are least likely to keep primary care appointments, according to the NIH. Moreover, “younger African Americans are living with or dying of many conditions typically found in white Americans at older ages,” according to the CDC. A UConn study found that “men who report experiencing frequent everyday racism had higher odds of delaying screenings and routine health care visits…those who perceived racism in health care had more medical mistrust with significantly reduced rates of preventive health care utilization.”

All these existing disparities, Ned says, were “exasperated by COVID.” Making matters worse were unfounded rumors that the virus didn’t impact Black people, which he claims were started by white supremacists: “They had Black people (saying) online, ‘Oh, we can’t get it. That’s only for white people.” It’s unclear who actually started the rumor, but it circulated widely enough to generate rebuttals from scores of media outlets and the medical community. As NBC reported, “fictional claims about Black immunity from a potentially deadly viral infection are connected with a long history of contradictory but uniformly racist ideas.” 

Misinformation, disinformation and historical aversion are all accelerating factors in COVID’s disproportionate impacts. Another significant factor is historical inequity and the reticence of medical professionals to call that out. The NIH report goes on to state, “In spite of growing interest in understanding the association between the social determinants of health and health outcomes, for a long time many academics, policy makers, elected officials, and others were reluctant to identify racism as one of the root causes of racial health inequities.” 

Free Breakfasts, Free Healthcare

A black and white image of Black men and women in front of a health clinic
The George Jackson Clinic in Berkeley, CA. Photo courtesy of ItsAboutTime.org.

Ned, however, has long been aware of the correlation between community health and racial inequity. After joining the Panthers 54 years ago, he immediately began working to change these outcomes with the organization’s survival programs , addressing “Food, housing, education, health. We took it all on,” he says.

The Panthers’ intersectional approach to addressing systemic racism was born out of necessity, understanding that inequity in the African American community was a result of connecting factors all tied to economic inequity. Health disparities were greatest in areas that were economically-underserved, where residents experienced poverty and lack of access to basic needs, including proper health care. “These programs were created to address issues that weren’t being addressed for the community,” Ned says.

Because of unequal investment in the Black community from government institutions and school districts, “we decided to go ahead and do what obviously was needed to do. And we created that kind of program.” The Panthers created 65 of these programs, the most famous of which was free breakfast for children. Other survival programs included sickle-cell anemia testing, an ambulance service, transportation for seniors, 24-hour childcare and free health clinics. These programs were instituted on a grassroots level in inner-city neighborhoods, in what today would be called a needs-based analysis.

In 1968, the Panthers established the Peoples’ Free Medical Clinics (PFMCs) to overcome systemic racism in hospitals and private medical facilities. This proved necessary because laws banning racial discrimination in federally-funded practices were often not enforced.

According to Blackpast.org, the first three PFMCs were in Seattle, Chicago, and Kansas City. In 1970, ten additional PFMCs were opened by Party chapters across the country. The Berkeley clinic, named first for Party co-founder Seale, was later renamed in honor of George Jackson. The clinics, part of the “radical health” movement of the 1970s, were staffed by volunteer medical professionals, along with medical students and trained community members. The clinics mostly provided basic services such as vaccination and screenings for diabetes, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, and sickle cell anemia.

These efforts raised national awareness of maladies disproportionately affecting Black Americans and led directly to the passage of the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act of 1972, funding new research, testing and treatment for what had been a little-known disease.

Before the Panther clinics, “there were no health clinics in the (Black) community,” Ned recalls, “You either went to emergency and then you did not go past emergency because you didn’t have health insurance.” Back then, he says, “the healthcare system wasn’t like it is now, where all citizens have an opportunity to be covered. There wasn’t anything like that.”

The PFMCs were also successful at getting African Americans to overcome medical aversion, he says, because they were run by a trusted community organization. “Since we’re talking about COVID and mistrust, the reason why people started coming to the clinics – and we were the first. After so many decades of people not trusting the medical profession – was because it was the Black Panther Party.” He remembers that community members would say, “because it’s you guys, I’m coming to get my checkup. I’m coming to get prenatal care, whatever it was.”

During the 1970s, when rival drug lords Felix Mitchell and Mickey Moore flooded Oakland’s streets with heroin, treating overdoses was a daily occurrence for the Panthers. Ned recalls the group curing addicts with acupuncture – a novel idea at the time, and years ahead of holistic health practices’ inclusion into HMO plans. At the time, Ned worked as a teacher at a Panther-operated school and community center in East Oakland – not far from the San Antonio Village public housing projects, infamously known as “69 Ville,” the headquarters for Mitchell’s criminal organization. 

a black and white photo of a large group of African American and some Asian American teachers and schools aff standing for photo
Oakland Community School staff. Photo courtesy of ItsAboutTime.org.

For neighborhood kids, the building (known alternately as Oakland Community School and Oakland Community Learning Center) was a sanctuary from the mean streets of the inner city, a place where their minds and bodies could receive nourishment. The stakes were high: Mitchell notoriously recruited children to act as lookouts and runners, while the Panthers tried to offer better alternatives to crime and violence.

Once vilified by the FBI as representing “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” the Panthers’ overarching vision of community health was ahead of its time. Free breakfast programs are now a staple of public education nationally. According to Ned, the no-cost medical care provided by healthcare professionals led to the formation of organizations like Doctors Without Borders. And the Affordable Care Act has increased access to healthcare for all.

The Case for Health Literacy

“Survival programs that were relevant then are relevant now,” Ned says. Mitchell and Moore’s organizations no longer exist, but drugs and violence remain a scourge in the neighborhoods they once operated out of. Economic inequity has been growing in America since the Reagan administration; Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity reported in 2018 that not only is the income gap in Oakland growing at a higher rate than the national average, but other racially-disproportionate “equity indicators” reveal high levels of disparities across the board impacting the African American community. These intersecting indicators include areas like neighborhood poverty, quality of education, child health, mental health, homelessness, incarceration, and homicides.

While much of the media’s focus has been on COVID’s spree and the debate over vaccinations, African Americans experience a variety of ongoing health crises on a racially-disproportionate level, compared to whites. Coping with racism in all its different forms – interpersonal, systemic, institutional – is highly traumatic. Mental Health America defines a condition known as race-based traumatic stress as “the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.” Systemic racism, a root cause of neighborhood poverty, low educational achievement, exposure to gun violence, domestic violence, incarceration, recidivism, environmental racism, and other interconnected factors, contributes heavily to African American trauma, which in turn has negative impacts on physical and mental health. 

In its analysis of Public Health equity indicators, Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity found that African Americans had the highest rates of ER visits due to mental health emergencies and substance abuse;  HIV diagnosis; premature death; and childhood asthma; and the lowest rates of life expectancy. Blacks in Oakland are less-likely to have health insurance than whites and more likely to suffer from preventable illnesses or disease. 

Despite increased rates of mental health trauma, Black people are less-likely to receive therapy and are at higher risk for mental health crises related to anxiety and depression. As a 2018 NIH report stated, “Black male trauma survivors were significantly less likely to be utilizing mental health services than other sex-ethnic groups.” Among the reasons for this finding are “High levels of daily crises, a lack of knowledge of steps to obtain services, and service eligibility issues.” The lack of social support in seeking mental health counseling or therapy is also a known factor. 

Suicide rates for young Black people reached epidemic levels prior to the pandemic; since then, they’ve continued to climb. As Scientific American reported, between 2015-2017, “suicides rose over time during that period among Black youth of all ages.” Post-COVID, suicides among Black males have risen faster than any other demographic – a statistic partially attributed to the lack of Black male therapists, as well as the fact Black males are less-likely to receive or seek treatment.

According to the CDC, people with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) who also contract Coronavirus have elevated risks of hospitalization, ICU treatment, and death. SCD continues to disproportionately impact African Americans at a rate of 1 in 12 – the highest of any ethnicity. The New England Journal of Medicine reported efforts to prevent and treat the disease have been hampered by the twin barriers of structural racism and racial discrimination: “Too often patients with SCD simultaneously combat unbearable pain and racist attitudes expressed by health care workers in our hospitals.”

Ned further cautions that there is a general lack of understanding about this genetic disease in the Black community, along with mistreatment of Black patients, particularly children, who are often given placebos, he says, despite being in “excruciating” pain.

Ned pledges to combat health illiteracy in the same way the Black Panthers did decades ago, when they demanded “free healthcare for all Black and oppressed peoples” in an amended version of their 10-Point Program.  He believes that by focusing on community health, he and the Panther alumni network can begin to address the broader topic of racialized structural inequality. The BPPALN has been working with Cayenne Wellness Center and the Black Nurses Association of Southern California, and hopes to expand its partnerships with the medical community in the coming months. Ned notes the Panthers originally partnered with Children’s Hospital in Oakland, now one of the leading programs in the country for SCD, back in the 1970s. He’s planning to reach out to them again in the hopes of raising awareness of health education. 

He believes this is possible because what we’re seeing now with African American health is “the same cycle repeating itself.” If community-based health approaches worked before, it stands to reason they can be effective again. 

“We will be that new health issue concept to gain the trust, but most important of all to straighten out the BS and misnomers. We’re gonna get people to understand why the sickle cell (is important), but that’s just a door opener, tip of the iceberg. Then we can talk about all the other things that we need to do.”

Staying Active 

At an age where most people are slowing down, Ned is busier than ever. In addition to programming the weekly BPPALN discussions, Ned and other members have been leading “Legacy Tours” of historic locales in Oakland – not only the only one of its type currently being offered, but a tour led by actual former BPP members.

There’s also a clothing line, Black Panther Power, and another clothing line in collaboration with AP2TP, a mutual aid collective, which features the “All Power to The People Collection,” the “Unity Collection,” the “Each One Teach One Collection,” and the “Rainbow Coalition Collection.” While Black Panther-branded gear is all over eBay and Etsy, proceeds from gear purchased through the BPPALN site support alumni network members and programs.

This coming June marks the scheduled reissue of original music on 7” vinyl by The Lumpen. Ned notes that the short-lived group was only active for a brief period, but had a tangible impact on their musical peers from the 1970s, many of whom began to make socially-conscious music after playing alongside The Lumpen.

As Ned explains, The Lumpen were “dedicated to a concept that we wanted to create on an educational basis. And then we wanted to call it the message in the music. We wanted to take from that era, the effect that we had and our lyrics and why we sang what we sang, but also show the effect of the era, the importance of well-known other artists weighing in and changing what they said.”

a black and white photo of four young African American men looking stylish and serious in hats
The Lumpen, a band of the Black Panther Party. Saturu Ned is second from right (then known as James Mott). Photo courtesy of ItsAboutTime.org.

There’s a whole list, he says, of artists from nationally-known acts like The O’JaysCurtis Mayfield, and the Chi-Lites to local people like Marvin Holmes and the Natural Four who “made some great socially-conscious stuff.”

The community-based model the Panthers utilized for their programs would today be called wraparound services, addressing all aspects of community needs. In Ned’s view, addressing the mistrust of health initiatives, such as responding to COVID or mitigating sickle cell, within the Black community “would easily be dissipated. If we could reinitiate.”

Ned’s vision may seem far-fetched, but his convictions are guided by past experience. The Panthers were instrumental in promoting the concept of health as a human right, and though the Party officially disbanded in 1982, he and the other alumni in the network never stopped fighting for justice. The 100 or so Panther alumni who are part of the BPPALN have decades of collective organizing experience, and the Education Sessions have expanded their reach to include people from all walks of life. “This is the same process we used for the breakfast programs,” he says. 

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Black Voices in the Town’ is funded by The African American Response Circle Fund. In 2020, the Brotherhood of Elders Network in partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation established the fund in response to the impact of COVID-19 as a public health crisis for African Americans who live, work, and worship in Alameda County.

About Eric Arnold

Eric Arnold is best known as a pioneering Bay Area hip-hop journalist. The former Editorial Director of 4080 Magazine, he has been documenting hip-hop’s cultural evolution since the early 90s. He has written for numerous national and local outlets over the years, including The Source, Vibe, Wax Poetics, Billboard, Okay Player, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Colorlines, East Bay Express, Oakland Local, The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, SF Chronicle, and KQED Arts. In 2018, he co-curated the Oakland Museum of California’s “Respect: Style and Wisdom of Hip Hop” exhibit and is a two-time “Excellence In Journalism” award winner for arts and culture reporting from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. In addition to his extensive background in music journalism, he has also written about media policy, politics, Black history, gentrification, public art, environmental justice, social justice protest movements, and community health. He had a brief cameo in the Boots Riley film “Sorry to Bother You” and been featured on NPR, KPFA, the New York Times, the Oakland Tribune, PBS Newshour, TVOne and BET. View all posts by Eric Arnold →

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