How Racism is Leading to Disproportionate Harm During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The current coronavirus pandemic is absolutely a public health crisis. But, as Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, the virus can also be understood as a structural disaster. That is, the current pandemic has unearthed the ways that structural racism and White supremacy have created and continue to create conditions that disproportionally and disparately impact Black, Native, and Latinx communities, especially those communities that also experience high levels of poverty. At CSSP, we are using an anti-racist, intersectional frame to think about how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting certain communities and to create anti-racist policy solutions that prioritize the well-being of communities most harmed by racism and White supremacy.   

The New York Times recently sued the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to obtain access to previously unreleased coronavirus data detailing racial and ethnic impacts. The data show that in the United States, Black and Latinx people are disproportionally harmed by the current pandemic; these disparities are true across age groups and geographic regions. Black and Latinx people are three times more likely to contract the virus in comparison to White people and twice as likely to die as a result of the virus. In addition, Native and Indigenous people are also experiencing disparities related to the current pandemic, being far more likely to become infected than White people. More detailed data on the coronavirus’ impact on Native and Indigenous people are not widely available, in part, because federal and state health agencies refuse to grant Native tribes access to data—yet another indication of racial disparities amidst the current pandemic.

In order to explain why Black, Native, and Latinx communities have high death rates, some prominent elected officials have turned to personal responsibility, asking people to take social distancing seriously and to make better food choices to stave off the higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases—underlying health conditions or comorbidities that make COVID-19 more lethal—and that frequently impact Black, Native, and Latinx communities. An anti-racist intersectional approach forces us to reject personal responsibility as the cause for the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Native, and Latinx communities and to look for meaningful institutional and structural responses. Profound and ignored inequities in access to health care, nutritious food, safe housing, and income to support basic needs, to name a few, have led to higher infection and death rates for certain communities.

Black, Native, and Latinx communities experience higher rates of diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, but the prevalence of these health conditions cannot be divorced from a larger social and political context. We need to move beyond an awareness of the social determinants of health to actions to address them. For example, it is well documented that environmental racism leads to higher rates of asthma, a condition that the Centers for Disease Control believes can lead to an increased risk for COVID-19. Due to decades of racist housing policies like redlining and decades of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods, Black people are more likely to live in areas impacted by what researchers call supermarket redlining, which leads to challenges in accessing fresh, healthy foods, food insecurity, and in some cases what is known as food deserts. Fresh foods and environmentally safe living conditions are among many factors that would decrease the prevalence of the preexisting conditions that lead to more serious bouts of COVID-19, but racist policies and structural barriers deny Black people access. A combination of concentrated poverty and racism, which impacts Native and Latinx communities, also similarly limits access to food choices. As Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, points out, the diabetes and heart diseases that impact Native and Indigenous communities are “colonial diseases,” and a result of the way that reservation conditions deny Native and Ingenious people access to their traditional foods, replacing their diets with unhealthy, western food choices. Moreover, racism is a stressor and research indicates that the stress of living within a racist society leads to disparate health outcomes. In response to the ways that racism leads to disparate health outcomes, several cities and states, including Cleveland; Denver; Indianapolis; San Bernardino county, California; Montgomery county, Maryland; Ohio; and Michigan, have named or indicated plans to name racism as a public health crisis.

Black people are also more likely to lack access to quality health insurance, and consistent data show that when Black people interact with the health care system, racism causes them to experience poor treatment and service. In addition, the response to the coronavirus has explicitly prioritized young, able-bodied people. Even medical experts have assuaged fear about the virus by saying that the chronically ill, disabled, and old are most likely to die from the coronavirus; these are “acceptable losses.” This response has indicated that our health care systems views disabled people as disposable, especially disabled people who are also Black and poor.

Without a vaccine or a standard, effective treatment, social distancing is not only an effective strategy to combat the virus but also one of the only proven strategies to stop the spread of the virus. Racism and White supremacy, however, often deny Black people from most protections, and the current pandemic is no different. Many Black people, because of ongoing economic and social stratification, live in ways that make social distancing impossible and impractical. Black people are more likely to make up the essential workforce, and Black and Latinx women in New York, many of them immigrants, are speaking out and organizing for safer work conditions. Black people also use public transportation at higher rates, experience higher rates of homelessness, and decades of racist policing in the United States makes Black people more likely to experience incarceration. Prisons and jails maintain deplorable living conditions on a regular basis, and the pandemic has worsened unhealthy conditions.

Black people’s more lethal experiences with COVID-19 are a matter of choices, but it is not the choices of individual Black people that make COVID-19 dangerous to Black communities. Higher rates of death in the Black community reveal consistent choices made by policy makers and systems to uphold White supremacy through the implementation of racist policies and practices that disproportionately impact Black communities. The prevailing response to COVID-19, which prioritizes profit over the well-being of communities, forces many poor and working-class Black people to continue or to return to unsafe working conditions despite the steady spread of the virus.  

No amount of personal responsibility will remove the structural barriers that deny Black people access to fresh food, jobs with paid leave, and outdoor spaces. Personal responsibility will not solve the fact that Black women make up the disproportionate number of low-wage service jobs of the essential workforce. However, rejecting individualism and the pathologizing of Black behavior and instead examining the effect of racist policies may allow us to clearly reframe the problem as structural, opening the door for the creation of anti-racist solutions that will help communities stay safe and healthy during the current pandemic and beyond. 

At CSSP, we are working to design, implement, and support anti-racist solutions such as paid leave for all, universal child allowance, and policy solutions that prioritize the needs of children and families who are immigrants, experiencing homelessness, involved in public systems like child welfare. In addition, CSSP uses an institutional analysis approach to identify how institutional structures and policies produce inequities so that jurisdictions can take actions to undo these policies and re-imagine and implement more equitable policies and practices. In many ways, COVID-19 has further revealed what we already know. Our public systems and the racism within our society actively harms certain communities and these harms will continue without anti-racist solutions.