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Police Brutality, COVID-19 and Overdoses in Chicago Follow the Same Deadly Pattern

Our country’s long history of structural racism stands at the center of why police brutality, COVID-19 and the opioid crisis are disproportionately killing black Americans, including in Chicago.

A demonstrator at a protest in Chicago on Saturday over the death of George Floyd. Police brutality, COVID-19 and the opioid crisis are disproportionately killing black Americans, including in Chicago. (Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Hello, readers. This is Duaa and Melissa.

We had planned to write this week’s newsletter about a story we published examining a sharp increase in opioid overdoses in Cook County at the same time the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise here. But the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent civil unrest have us thinking about what those seemingly separate crises have in common.

Opioid-related deaths, police brutality and COVID-19 are all disproportionately killing black Americans, including in Chicago.

That brutal trend became clear as we began reporting on overdoses after getting a tip that the number of opioid-related fatalities was up this year. We analyzed death records from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office and found a stunning increase: More than twice as many people have died or are suspected to have died from opioids so far this year than this time last year.

As with so many stories we’ve both reported, it was impossible to not see the disparities. More than half of the dead were African Americans, many of them from Chicago’s West or South sides.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, a researcher with the Chicago Urban League who has written about the impact of opioids on African Americans, told us black drug users have higher overdose mortality rates for many of the same reasons that they’re more likely to die from COVID-19: higher rates of poverty, less access to effective medical treatment, more underlying health conditions.

This echoes a story Duaa worked on recently that investigated why so many of the first 100 recorded COVID-19 victims in Chicago were black.

The underlying causes driving Chicago’s opioid crisis and COVID-19 are sadly relevant to the national conversations we’re all having now about police violence and racial inequity.

Our colleague Mick Dumke likes to remind us that police brutality and disparate enforcement in black communities are symptoms of broader inequities and white supremacy. Our country’s long history of structural racism — and the segregation, disinvestment, loss of job opportunities and chronic stress that come with it — stands at the center.

This is what we’re thinking about as we consider Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, and decide on a reporting path for ourselves as a news organization. Here are some of the recent stories we’re reading that are helping us get to the heart of these issues and offer context on how we got to this point.

This week, WBEZ and City Bureau partnered to report on modern-day redlining, as banks have invested more in a single white Chicago neighborhood than all of the city’s black neighborhoods combined.

The Chicago Tribune wrote about why police reform takes so long.

Chicago magazine had an interesting piece on how one elected official in suburban Evanston was able to do something that had been a political non-starter for decades: pass legislation approving reparations for African Americans.

Going back to our own colleagues’ work, Jodi Cohen has written a lot about police accountability in Chicago, including this story on the controversial officer who’s now the head of the union for rank-and-file police officers and an analysis (reported with the Tribune) on why so many misconduct grievances are overturned.

Last fall, our colleague Logan Jaffe wrote about so-called sundown towns, focusing on one community in southern Illinois with a lengthy history of racism where many black people continue to feel unwelcome.

And nationally, this story about becoming a parent in the age of Black Lives Matter from The Atlantic was especially poignant. As was this Q&A in The New Yorker with Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer and author of “Just Mercy.”

There’s still much work to be done. Please let us know if you have ideas or tips about what we should be reporting on at [email protected] and [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

—Duaa Eldeib and Melissa Sanchez

Reporters, ProPublica Illinois

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Portrait of Duaa Eldeib

Duaa Eldeib

Duaa Eldeib is currently investigating issues related to health inequities and race. Send tips and documents her way.

Portrait of Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter at ProPublica Illinois who is focused on immigrants and low-wage workers.

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