While Black Americans face the dual pandemics of COVID-19 racist police brutality, their disproportionate impact on Black Muslims has been overlooked. Black Muslims endure socioeconomic and racial impacts of the virus in multiple ways while also navigating the threat of anti-Black violence. However, commonly-held stereotypes about Muslims and ethnicities often erase Black Muslims in America from the picture entirely—and that creates deadly consequences.
Black communities in general are already vulnerable in a number of ways that impact health and can make one more susceptible to COVID-19 and potentially fatal complications from the virus. Whether it’s being located in “food deserts,” living in under-resourced and over-polluted neighborhoods, or dealing with stress of structural racism, multiple environmental and systemic factors contribute to Black people being more prone to health issues such as hypertension, diabetes, and COVID-19. For Black Muslims, this is compounded by the fact that their communities are further marginalized by American stereotypes about Muslims and Black people.
The popular misconception about Muslims among many Americans is that Muslims are most commonly people of Arab and South Asian ethnicities. In fact, 20-25% of the American Muslim population is Black. As an often invisibilized group within an already marginalized community, Black Muslims face an even greater disproportionate degree of inequitable access to basic necessities and health services, the consequences of which have been brought into stark relief by the pandemic.
COVID-19 has been devastating to Black Muslims from all backgrounds on multiple fronts. Black Muslims are targeted for harassment, discrimination, and violence due to both racism and Islamophobia. Muslims in America compose the country’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged faith group: One-third of Muslim families live at or below the poverty line, and Black Muslims make $30K less than that. Black Muslim communities are often impacted by area hospital closures while at the same time are often essential workers at high risk of contracting the virus, even as they lack access to proper health care.
Imam Tariq El-Amin, the director of civic engagement and interfaith services at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and an Imam of Masjid Al-Taqwa, said that in Chicago alone, 70% of COVID-19 deaths have been Black people even though they only make up just under 30% of the population. Losing loved ones and longtime community members to both the virus and anti-Black police violence is continuing to take a toll on Black Muslims. Khadijah Abdullah, a COVID-19 Prevention Network Faith Ambassador and the Founder of Reaching All HIV+ Muslims In America (RAHMA), lost an uncle to COVID-19. For her, the deaths of family amidst the current wave of Islamophobic hate crimes and anti-Muslim legislations, on top of continuous stories of anti-Black police violence and white nationalist uprisings, are especially distressing reflections of how pervasive white privilege is in America.
“An unmasked, non-social distancing, so-called ‘patriotic’ America screamed in our faces a fact we already knew,” Abdullah said. “Black Lives are not valued. Black lives do not matter. Bloodshed would have permanently stained the streets of our nation’s Capitol if Black people even attempted to breach its doors. Black and brown people were then left with the burden of cleaning up the mess they left behind. History repeating itself time and time again.”
El-Amin says one of the challenges facing Black Muslims is accepting that their long tradition of using the Islamic faith as bedrock motivating the social justice work may not be enough. The pandemic and social upheavals further demonstrated how American systems still lack any intention to tend to Black needs. While individual efforts may be well-intended, they are not sufficient. For example, in a community where people live in close quarters due to their socioeconomic status, there are higher rates of infection. While remote ordering options such as Instacart may be an option for some, others who are on government support programs may be barred from purchasing groceries remotely, depending on individual state regulations.
An additional hurdle is the sheer lack of data regarding the effects of COVID-19 on Black Muslims. Studies have indicated that Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates, but because Black Muslims are regularly left out of research, there’s little data available to track just how badly their communities are being affected by the pandemic.
As a result, the Muslim Wellness Foundation and (MWF) and the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) launched the National Black Muslim COVID Coalition. The coalition hopes to spread accurate information to strengthen individual and collective well-being by utilizing community organizing principles rooted in faith and spirituality along with cultural resilience and knowledge. The main goal is to strengthen and support Black Muslim leadership by optimizing physical health along with spiritual and emotional wellness. In addition, they intend to share best practices and resources to respond to community needs in different phases of the pandemic.
“We have supported Black Muslim students who have graduated into an unknown future, heard from leaders of institutions that are strained for resources, connected with businesses owners and workers affected by the shutdowns, and held space for our members who are grieving lost loved ones and community members,” said Margari Hill, executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. “Many of the ways Black Muslims have built resilience—community gatherings, connecting with family, and gatherings—have also been shut down. But I’ve also seen a resurgence in Black Muslim leadership in responding to the crisis and the strengthening of our network as we connect virtually.”
Dr. Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, who focuses her research on quantifying the psychological toll of COVID-19, encouraged all to be more curious about the experience of Black Muslims. By learning about the specific needs of their communities and taking their lead, others will be better prepared to help.
“Consider the long history of movements in our communities and recognize the contributions to long standing structure change that many of our efforts have had,” she said.
In addition, Hill wants the community to be more accountable. In a webinar on the National Black Muslim Covid Coalition, she urged for reflection, especially among community leaders.
“This is a moment of Black Muslim leadership and Black Muslim vision,” she said. “This is a moment for those who seek solidarity—who also draw on our legacies—to respect this leadership, and join us as partners. Our work brings together local, regional, [and] national groups, and that gives us a lot of power. This moment is a beautiful struggle to be a part of and an honor to be witness to the solutions our communities are generating.”
While the conditions for Black Muslims are currently grim Rashad wants the community to remember that acknowledging experiences of oppression rather than denying or repressing them can be a form of radical healing. She still finds hope in how despite enduring the twin catastrophes of the pandemic and ongoing racial violence, people have responded generating opportunities to help and support each other.
“We have strength, intellect, and wisdom that we have gained from our experience,” she said. “This pandemic has offered our communities an opportunity to lead in a way that is thoughtful and intentional. We can be the custodians for that future that we are fighting for.”