Ruta Smith

Members of Charleston’s poorest and ethnic minority communities say they can help build a more resilient state in the wake of the pandemic.

“We’re living in a time, unfortunately, that is trying and putting to the test the fairness, the equity of all of our systems,” says Bernie Mazyck of Summerville, who serves as CEO of the S.C. Association for Community Economic Development. “It should give everyone, up and down the social strata, give all of us a moment to pause and look at what we currently have, to reflect upon it and say, ‘Something’s wrong here, we need to rethink some things.'”

African Americans in the state are more likely than white people to die from COVID-19. Furthermore, those who have trouble accessing health care are less likely to be tested, and some of the lowest wage-earners in the state are the ones keeping essential services, such as grocery stores, running. Advocates say those at the margins have been impacted harder by the pandemic than the mostly white middle class.

“(Rebuilding) will require centering the voices of black people and indigenous and poor folk and immigrant communities,” Charleston activist Tamika Gadsden says. “There needs to be a needs assessment that needs to be people led … using grassroots organizing to listen to folks to let them tell folks what they need.”

According to the 2018 census estimates, South Carolina’s black population comprises 27.1 percent of the state. Hispanics account for 5.9 percent and Native Americans account for 0.5 percent of the population. White residents represent 68.5 percent of the population.

Not experiencing pandemic similarly

“Politics aside, take a step back and look at the people who have continually exposed themselves and [their] families to this virus so we can have food on our table,” journalist and immigrant advocate Fernando Soto of Charleston says. “Take a step back and take it all in and realize, while we go through this pandemic together, we’re not all in it together in the same way.”

It was a sentiment repeated by many.

“Black folks and Latinos and other marginalized, low-income communities, they’re the ones on the front lines,” North Charleston Democratic Rep. J.A. Moore says. “Until we protect folks in the community I represent, not just identity-wise, then the whole state is vulnerable, the whole idea of taking care of the least of these because the least of these is who takes care of us.”

Mexican immigrant Sonia Villegas of North Charleston says while many people in the state have tried to stay home during the pandemic, many in the immigrant community have had to work.

“Unfortunately, we are people who live day-by-day and we need to work,” she says. “There’s a lot of friends who have been able to stay home but a lot of single moms I know, they have to go out and look for the food and work every single day. If they don’t work, they can’t feed their children.”

Inequities exposed

For some, the pandemic has exposed underlying inequities and could be the start of a conversation about the disparities’ root causes. And, they say, now is the time to listen to the communities most deeply impacted by the virus and the economic fallout.

“If you’re looking at trying to improve the conditions of people in a society, you have to look at the least of these, you have to look at those that have been historically neglected. The solutions on how we move forward have to be a bottom-up approach,” North Charleston Democratic Rep. Marvin Pendarvis says. “If you do those things, in the long run you will be able to ensure prosperity.”

Gadsden says the black and minority communities of South Carolina are not better prepared to weather catastrophe due to anything “supernatural.”

“This isn’t genetic, our ability to adapt and respond after being slighted, under-resourced, under-served,” she says. “It’s a byproduct of white supremacist culture … It’s the vestiges of slavery in this state and its inability to make amends.”

Sabrina Grey Wolf Creel of Walterboro, a board member of the Edisto Natchez Kusso Tribe of South Carolina, says ethnic minorities and those earning a low income offer a unique viewpoint.

“We fight a lot of different things that most people don’t fight every day,” she says. “We might be a minority but we are still here where it would have taken other people out … Low-income, minority groups, the difficulties that we face, that the average American doesn’t, is one of the strongest things that keeps us survivors.”

Republican Statehouse candidate Samuel Rivers, who is vying for his former seat held by Moore, said it isn’t just a black-and-white issue. It’s about what everyone wants.

“Everyone wants the same things: a good education, safe streets, the ability to send their children to college, financial security, good health, peace and tranquility,” Rivers says. “It’s just finding the different road maps to get there. When we do that we will come up with a balanced approach on how we can rebuild our state.”

Skepticism and hope

The very people who were left out of the Great Depression’s New Deal and who have recovered the least since the Great Recession remain skeptical that the government can help or that any lasting change will result.

“We have had those experiences where we looked at institutions for help and we expect them to rebuild and, time and time again, black and brown people have been left behind,” Soto says.

Still, there is hope. Soto says he has seen a shift on social media with more people caring about the fates of low-income workers, regardless of immigration status.

Expanding access to health care

Gaining equal access to health care was a key concern for many, with some saying the state should reevaluate expanding Medicaid, an option the state has declined since 2009. Some of the states that initially declined Medicaid expansion have since expanded the federally supported service to include more people.

“The need right now, more than ever, is to expand Medicaid,” Moore says. “Now is a time to not play politics and expand Medicaid so we can really ensure people can have the health care coverage we need.”

In addition to expanding Medicaid, Moore says state lawmakers need to do better in funding the state departments that focus on health, the environment, and mental health.

Soto says people who are not insured also have difficulty in obtaining coronavirus tests. For that reason, he said, there should be skepticism when looking at S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s demographic data for COVID-19, which lists 6 percent of cases as Hispanic.

“That’s very concerning because that number seems very minute,” he says. “To this day, I don’t know where anybody would go for a free test. Hispanics, by and large, have to pay for things out of pocket because they don’t have health care coverage.”

Improving education

Education for adults and children was another recurring theme.

“It takes upfront investment in our citizens. I don’t think we can commit to long-term resiliency in South Carolina without investing in how we educate our kids,” Moore says.

Mazyck of Summerville says South Carolina needs to rally around teachers post-pandemic.

“One of the things that’s clear from this pandemic and this shelter-in-place order that we are currently living under — everyone will say teachers are gold, and as such we should pay them as the gold that they are. The General Assembly has to be forced to increase the budget for teacher pay,” he says.

Gadsden says marginalized communities cannot have equal footing without equal education, and she says South Carolina needs greater investment in education for communities of color. She says the majority-black counties are too often at the bottom in education, and minorities are too often left out of the best schools in a district.

For Emory Campbell of Hilton Head Island, education needs to extend beyond traditional education, especially for minority communities.

“We strengthen them by sharing the history with them or reteaching. Allowing families to begin to learn their history and their culture and that’s how you strengthen the community, empower the community to do what they do best,” Campbell says. “The rural communities in South Carolina and the communities along the coast, what they need most is education and how-to programs.”

Campbell, retired as leader of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, says those how-to programs should teach everything from gardening to finances. Born into the Gullah community of Hilton Head, Campbell says the community is made more vulnerable now by loss of identity and loss of skills.

“We dragged them off to work, we educated them poorly and yet they’re the ones that had the resources to develop themselves,” he says.

Soto says the immigrant community is facing a different challenge: parents are out working and cannot help children with school work, and sometimes the parents don’t speak the language or have enough education to help.

Raising the minimum wage,
affordable housing

Pendarvis says he’s hopeful that there will be consideration for raising the minimum wage and addressing affordable housing.

“So many people in vulnerable communities, they work 9 to 5, they work minimum wage, and that’s not enough for them to take care of their children and pay rent and utilities,” he says, adding it also speaks to an affordable housing issue in the state. Both lead to financial instability for the most vulnerable, he says.

Mazyck says the pandemic has shown who the most essential and yet most underpaid workers are in the state.

“When you look at the bus driver, the Uber driver, the restaurant server, the fast-food server, when you look at all of those professions, the health professionals up and down the professional ranks, we now see how important those people are to our quality of life and to our economy but they’re the ones paid the least, paid on an hourly basis,” he says. “Then in order for them to live, housing is unaffordable so they oftentimes are living in substandard housing.”

Building financial preparedness

Mazyck said crises sometimes lead to low-income workers borrowing from high-interest payday or title loan lenders, a stopgap that could further undermine their financial situation.

“Those types of lenders, in a lot of cases, are predatory. They don’t build or help that customer to help them get out of that loan or build that credit rating,” he said. “As a result they fall further and further into economic dismay so we need financial systems that work so folks can access them. Some of that might require more financial education, credit counseling.”

Rivers says financial preparedness of the individual will help people weather storms like this better.

“People need to be a little more financially prepared for times like these,” he says. Financial preparedness and helping some South Carolinians get out of “the renting stage” will help people become more self-reliant, he adds.

Building resiliency through faith

Creel says she’s noticed a bright spot from the pandemic: People are spending more time with family and with God.

“The pandemic took away shopping, sports events and all these things,” she says. “It made you put back into focus the things that really matter like your family, your household, and making sure your neighbor is well taken care of as well. It’s almost like a pause in time to see where you really are.”

She said she hoped people will continue with a new perspective moving forward.

“For us to go stronger, it’s putting God back in the center of it and [moving] forward,” Creel says. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

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