Don’t Ignore Structural Racism Revealed by COVID-19

At some point in our lives, most of us have heard a variation of the phrase “I’m not racist, in fact I think we need to be colorblind when it comes to race!”

On the surface-level, this sounds innocent. After all, some will say, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to judge people by their character, not their skin! How could I possibly be perpetuating racism if I don’t even SEE race?”

If you find that phrase innocuous, perhaps even appealing, you need to read this article. If not, well, I hope you’ll read anyway for a helpful reminder why.

It’s shortsighted to think after hundreds of years of enslavement, segregation, and discrimination, that racism and its impacts will cease to exist in just a few short decades. It’s existence is so deeply rooted within American society that if we close our eyes and try to live in an optimistically “post-racial world,” we will in-fact be perpetuating the very same racism we claim to oppose.

Coronavirus demonstrates this structural racism most clearly in three interconnected categories: healthcare outcomes, economic status, and incarceration/detention.

Healthcare Outcomes

Before COVID-19, racial disparities in the American healthcare system were already apparent. Even after adjusting for other socioeconomic factors, people of color receive less care and have worse health outcomes than white people. According to CDC researchers, black and indigenous women are two to three times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. Not only are the health outcomes worse for black people than whites, but studies also show that they are more likely to receive insufficient care.

All of that being said, it should come as no surprise that the coronavirus outbreak is exposing this deep-rooted structural racism in healthcare.

As of April 16, an Associated Press analysis of available data found that African Americans make up about 30% of coronavirus deaths, despite only being about 15% of the population in the areas studied.

In New Mexico, even though Native Americans only consist of about 11% of the state’s population, they account for a whopping 37% of cases.

Although this data is incomplete, many state and local governments have yet to release statistics on the racial makeup of those infected, it fits a long-standing pattern in the American healthcare system. It is worsened by the fact that people of color are less likely to have health insurance than whites and millions of people are losing their employer-based healthcare every week of this crisis. To be colorblind in our policy-making would be to ignore and contribute to disparities like this.

Economic Status

This is another area where already serious racial divides are being intensified.

A document titled “The Economic State of Black America in 2020” published by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress lays out numerous facts about this racial disparity in economic status. The unemployment rate is consistently about double for black Americans compared to whites (6% vs. 3.1% at time of the document’s publication). The average black household earns 59 cents for every dollar a white household earns, amounting to white households earning $29,000 more every year. Perhaps most glaringly, the median wealth of a black household is less than one-tenth of a white household ($17,000 vs. $171,000).

That’s the legacy of red-lining, when governments and companies designated majority minority communities as undesirable for business during the early 20th century.

COVID-19 is building on this history. According to researchers at Colombia University, poverty is projected to increase twice as much for blacks than whites. Hispanics are predicted to suffer a similarly high poverty rate (between 20–25% depending on unemployment rate), while whites (between 8–10%) consistently perform better than the average of 12–16%. In the last month alone, nearly 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

It is people of color who are bearing the brunt of the economic consequences of COVID-19. To ignore systemic racism is to allow this pattern to intensify.

Incarceration/Detention

The racial disparity in the American criminal justice system is probably the most well-known of the three described in this article. The criminal justice system is also among the least discussed, yet riskiest places to catch COVID-19.

According to the NAACP, even though blacks and hispanics only made up about 32% of the U.S. population in 2015, they accounted for 56% of all incarcerated people. If these two racial groups were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, America’s world-record incarceration numbers would drop nearly 40%. Even though they use drugs at the same rates, black people are six times more likely to face a charge than whites.

Due to the close living quarters prisoners are forced to live in, it is a prime breeding ground for the virus to spread. At one Ohio prison alone, there are nearly 2,000 positive cases. Attempts to isolate sick prisoners are accidentally subverted by those who are asymptomatic carriers, making slowing the spread that much more difficult. Rightfully so, incarcerated people watching their peers die around them at Rikers Island and other prisons across the country are fearful for their lives.

Similar concerns exist within immigration detention centers, whose detainees are overwhelmingly from South and Central America.

Even though 60% of the people kept in these facilities have no criminal record and are only in custody for a civil violation, many are still being held as the pandemic intensifies. Among the thousands that the U.S. did deport, some tested positive for the virus. Of the 300 detainees who ICE tested for COVID-19 so far, more than one-third tested positive, raising fears that it is more widespread in these facilities than is currently known.

The more widespread the virus runs through our criminal justice system, the deeper the racial disparities from the pandemic are likely to become.

To see our society in a racially-colorblind way, whether intentionally malicious or not, is still to perpetuate systems of oppression that exist in nooks and crannies throughout our society.

We cannot remain blissfully ignorant and pretend as though we have racial equality just because segregation ended; it’s hateful legacy is still with us. We cannot correct systemic racism in the U.S. without acknowledging and tackling it head on. We cannot continue ignoring this ongoing problem as if it doesn’t exist.

COVID-19 is exposing the multi-layered ways racism still plagues our society. We can use this as a learning opportunity or we will condemn future generations to the same fate.

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