In our country’s long and difficult history of dealing with racial inequality, Kansas has played a proud role. But we can’t let that role only be a historical one.


Many are familiar with our state’s origin as a free state. Settlers literally shed blood to make sure we entered the union without the stain of slavery in our borders. Today, that phrase, "free state," adorns a high school and beer alike. But it should be remembered that the abolitionists weren’t quaint relics — they were forceful, loud and willing to use violence in their pursuit of freedom for their fellow Americans who lived in chains.


Roughly a century later, Topeka found itself at the center of the national dialogue again as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 1954 decision, the high court overturned the doctrine of separate but equal, holding that there was no way that institutions segregated by race could treat black Americans fairly.


There’s more to the story, of course. We can’t forget the Exodusters, those who settled in Kansas after emancipation. We can’t forget the state’s distinguished black residents, from writers and artists to sports stars and political leaders.


But that’s all the past. We’re now in the present, a present that finds our nation still grappling with fundamental questions of equality. And Kansas isn’t immune.


Last month, for instance, the Wichita Eagle reported that Kansas had the biggest disparity in COVID-19 deaths of the 41 states that were reporting data by race. According to work by UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, while black Kansans make up only 5.6% of the state’s population, they accounted for nearly a third of our state’s fatalities from the coronavirus.


Looking at the most recent data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the rate appears to have dropped in the weeks since that report. But black people still account for a quarter of deaths in the state.


The social determinants of health are many and complex. But Kansans must look carefully at why these inequities persist.


We can’t be proud of our history on one hand and ignore the present on the other. Leaders throughout our state must step up and say these kind of outcomes aren’t acceptable. Black Kansans deserve the same opportunities at health as white Kansans. They deserve the same opportunities to thrive and contribute to this state.