Michael Curry: Waging a duel-front war on the pandemic and racism
Veteran NAACP leader works to stabilize health centers while championing racial justice
THE LAST SEVERAL MONTHS have been dominated by two seismic issues convulsing the nation — the global coronavirus pandemic and a burgeoning movement for racial justice. For Michael Curry, that’s meant working double-time as the twin crises strike at the heart of the work he’s been doing in Boston for years.
The son of a Roxbury single mother who migrated to Boston from the Jim Crow South, Curry is deputy CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and the past president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, who has had prominent roles nationally in the iconic civil rights organization.
After digging in to the history of racial discrimination in his studies and serving as president of the black student union at Macalester College in Minnesota, Curry said he made a commitment to pursue racial justice work. “So that brought me home,” he said on a new “Health or Consequences” episode of The Codcast with John McDonough of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Dr. Paul Hattis of Tufts University School of Medicine.
It eventually took Curry to the presidency of the Boston branch of the NAACP, where he led a rejuvenation of the chapter and became a leading voice of the city’s black community.
Curry said he worries that the energy that’s been unleashed could wane, as the country finally seems on the brink of confronting the centuries-long path of destruction racism has cut through the lives of African Americans. He’s concerned that we’ve become inured to those injuries and have “normalized” everything from housing discrimination to routine abuse of black Americans by police.
Wearing his health care hat, Curry has also been in the thick of efforts to stabilize the 52 health centers the Mass. League represents, clinics that are the backbone of primary care for thousands of low-income residents, including many black and Latino families, across the state.
Revenue at the health centers fell dramatically when routine care visits were cancelled, but Curry said emergency state and federal aid has helped shore up their finances. Curry said he and other health care leaders have had lots of “sleepless nights.” Most community health centers are now back at 70 to 80 percent of their pre-pandemic visit volume, he said, but the possibility of a second coronavirus wave is worrisome.
The dual focus of Curry’s work is, in many ways, really part of one broader effort, as health centers address profound health disparities that are the result of systemic racism.
He said a major part of the racial reckoning underway has been getting whites to see more clearly the racism that blacks have experienced as their everyday life. “I always challenge my white friends and colleagues, that if you look around at the C-suites and you see white men, if you look at every mayor in the history of the city of Boston, being a white male, and think that is just normal, then that’s racism, because what it means is you left talent on the table,” he said.Curry said he remains hopeful that the country is not just experiencing a passing moment, but a sustained movement.
“I’m not condoning violence, but I do know that violence is as American as Apple pie, from the American Revolution and a righteous mob and folks saying no taxation without representation. Imagine being murdered by police. Imagine generations of knowing you’ve been denied housing, or there’ve been covenants built into these sales of homes,” he said. “I’m hopeful that people’s righteous indignation will take them into the streets, will make them go to the polls angry, that it will make them show up in ways that we’ve not showed up in, quite frankly, ever.”