What explains the disparate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans? History professor explores the reasons

In “Notes of a Native Son,” his first work of nonfiction published in 1955, James Baldwin asserted, “The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.” This statement was, arguably, a touchstone for his challenging, insightful, and argumentative writings about race relations. Since white folk often choose to dodge conversations about race, a tactic Robin DiAngelo terms “white fragility,” they tend to ignore, dismiss, or victim blame when data demonstrate continued racial inequality.

Ignoring these deeply rooted historical injustices in the United States, though, blinds all of us to the disproportionately heavy toll that COVID-19 has exacted and will continue to exact on communities of color. This essay will provide several causal explanations as to why African Americans are uniquely vulnerable to catching and dying from COVID-19. These include their relative lack of access to quarantine-safe housing, absence of savings to cushion the pandemic’s economic impact, and inability to obtain quality health care.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that people of color are concentrated in blue-collar or service sector jobs, occupations characterized by low pay, reduced benefits (including health insurance) and an inability to telecommute.

If we start with the actions recommended to avoid COVID-19 exposure, it is striking how this advice is difficult to follow for all poor people regardless, and African Americans in particular. Baldwin might ask, what does “shelter in place” really mean? For 75% of whites, it means staying inside a home they own, with some physical and social distance from neighbors. For 66% of African Americans, it means remaining sedentary in a rented apartment or part of a house, in closer proximity with others related and unrelated to them. This differential is a product of decades of redlining, blockbusting and steering by real estate agents and banks, buttressed by white opposition to low-income housing construction in mixed neighborhoods.

Official governmental initiatives, such as the GI Bill and Federal Housing Administration, excluded even middle-class African Americans from suburbanization. Urban areas, where the majority of the population is now non-Hispanic white, lack green spaces for social distancing and recreation facilities for exercising. Adding these historically reproduced qualities together translates into additional risks for getting COVID-19 and spreading it quickly and easily in population-dense communities. 

Living paycheck to paycheck

What about limiting exposure by buying two weeks’ worth of groceries? That requires savings from a job that pays enough to not live paycheck to paycheck. With the pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate for African Americans at least double that of whites, the former are disproportionately liable to be currently unemployed or underemployed. By inheriting generational wealth from work, in 2016, the average white family had accumulated 10 times as much wealth as their black counterparts. That same year, the Institute for Policy Studies reported that 38% of black families owned zero wealth, as compared with 15.5% of white families, and the gap is increasing, not decreasing.

Dr. Rowland Brucken

The Federal Reserve reported in 2016 that white households had an average of $34,000 in savings accounts; black families had $10,500. This is, in part, due to income inequality and higher monetary costs that African Americans must pay to open and maintain checking and savings accounts. Moreover, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that people of color are concentrated in blue-collar or service sector jobs, occupations characterized by low pay, reduced benefits (including health insurance) and an inability to telecommute. These workplaces often cannot allow for social distancing, such as in retail stores, public transit or manufacturing facilities. When the lack of supermarket chains in poor neighborhoods and the absence of healthy food available in ubiquitous low-budget chains such as Dollar General is factored in, the obstacles to stashing away 14 days of healthy food and household supplies emerge.

If people with diabetes, lung diseases and heart disease are at greater risk of acquiring COVID-19, it is not surprising that the virus has impacted African Americans more already. In Louisiana, the governor reported that 70% of the state’s 512 deaths were African Americans, even though blacks represented only 32% of the state’s population. In Chicago, 70% of deaths so far come from this group that is only 30% of the city’s residents. The reasons why African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, asthma, heart disease and pulmonary hypertension, among ailments, likely stem from a combination of living in less environmentally healthy communities, diminished availability of fresh and healthy food, the psychological stresses of poverty and racism and less access to health care due to cost and inferior treatment received.

When Medicaid isn’t expanded

Poverty and the refusal by Southern states to expand Medicaid contribute to the fact that 11% of blacks lack health insurance, compared with 7% of whites. Given this discrepancy, the Century Foundation found in December 2019 that African Americans spent 20% of their income on average on premiums and out-of-pocket costs compared with whites, who on average spent only 10%.

There is also historical distrust of the health care system given past medical experimentation on people of color. The infamous Tuskegee Experiment is only one example. The wearing of face masks, moreover, to inhibit the spread of the virus is something white people can do without a second thought; black men who fear being shot by police have legitimate reasons to fear how law enforcement will view their now half-hidden faces.  

“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community. Here again with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director

“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated April 7. “Here again with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”

Statistics cited here do not exist in a vacuum. They have historical roots spanning back decades from housing, educational, occupational, and environmental policies whose cumulative formulation and application created racially based disparities. White Americans have had the influence, power and resources to deny and suppress this truth. They will get sick and die, despite their quality of life advantages.

African Americans will get sick and die, too, though in greater numbers and largely out of public view, due to their quality-of-life disadvantages. That is a tragedy within a tragedy, to be likely repeated in the next national crisis, until we accept James Baldwin’s exhortation to ask uncomfortable questions and fearlessly push for change, wherever the answers lead us.

Dr. Rowland Brucken is a history professor at Norwich University.

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