I know some would rather we not discuss it.
Those who regularly counsel colorblindness, and insist we shouldn’t focus too much attention on racial disparities in America, will likely prefer the same smothering nonchalance here. The fact that black people comprise a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths around the country doesn’t matter, or so they will proclaim.
You can almost hear them now:
“Who cares about the race of those dying? It doesn’t matter if they’re white, or black, or green with pink polka dots,” they’ll insist — the latter configuration being popular, albeit a nonexistent version of humanity, often conjured by those seeking to shut down any discussion of race and its ongoing salience.
On this account, race is irrelevant, and even broaching the subject is the divisive playing of some mystical card intended to hijack rational thought, or perhaps to make white people feel guilty.
For others, the motivation for not discussing race is less cynical but no less concerning. Some may feel that it’s more important to convey an “all in this together” mentality than to subdivide those impacted into distinct groups. To these, colorblindness is more a strategic than philosophical concern, and veering into discussions of racial justice amid a national and global crisis, even if understandable, can only backfire. It will, at best, come off as politically correct “identity politics.” At worst, it will actively dissuade the kind of solidarity needed to pull together as a nation. After all, if too many whites see the problem as someone else’s, they may do what whites often have done in that situation: downplay its importance and move on to something else.
But to be colorblind, regardless of motivation, is, as Julian Bond used to put it, to be blind to the consequences of color. And now, as with America in more normal times, color is having consequences quite profound. Acknowledging them is a matter of ethical obligation and public health. To ignore them is to ignore an underlying rot at the heart of the American experiment, and ensure its continued spread, with detrimental consequences for all.
Even as a strategic matter, to elide the racial aspect of the crisis is to ensure that even if we stitch together an uneasy solidarity in the face of pandemic, it will be a fragile one, unlikely to survive in months and years to come. As such, the injustices magnified by this moment would be left to fester. Such solidarity as that is no solidarity at all. It would be much like the unity proclaimed in the wake of 9/11, which papered over ongoing racial divisions, none of which vanished that day like so many floors of the World Trade Center. Even more analogous, it recalls the way America came together during World War II, but by not addressing the racial divisions internal to the nation, even as we fought white supremacist fascism abroad, left those divisions in place for another generation, at great cost to millions.
So first, and regarding the present awfulness, here’s what we know:
In state after state, the COVID-19 crisis is affecting black folks disproportionately relative to whites.
In Milwaukee, where African Americans are 26 percent of the population, they comprise 46 percent of diagnosed COVID cases and 73 percent of fatalities.
In Michigan, black folks are 14 percent of the population but 35 percent of all cases and 41 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
In Chicago, blacks are 32 percent of the population, but over half of infections and two-thirds of fatalities. On a per-capita basis, black folks are twice as likely as whites to contract the virus there. For Illinois as a whole, 42 percent of deaths have occurred in the black community, even though black folks are only 14 percent of the statewide population.
In Louisiana — where 40 percent of deaths have occurred in majority-black New Orleans, and where heavily black parishes along the Mississippi River have been especially hard hit — over 70 percent of deaths have been among African Americans, despite blacks being only a third of the population.
In New York State, the black share of deaths is double their percentage of the population, and although the disparities in New York City are not as large, they do exist for both blacks and Latino/as. Indeed, as for the city, the disparities will likely grow as more data comes in. Preliminary numbers indicate poorer and blacker neighborhoods, and those with large amounts of service workers, who can’t as easily “shelter in place,” have been the hardest hit by infections.
Nationally, people in counties with majority black populations are six times more likely than those in majority-white counties to die from coronavirus.
Importantly, although African Americans are more likely than whites to live in large urban spaces — meaning places with more people, more travel across state and national lines, and thus, more opportunity for infection — this cannot account for the racial gaps within specific communities, as noted in the data. There are much deeper forces at work, even if some would rather avoid looking at them.
Frankly, there is nothing mysterious about the way the data is shaking out. The virus itself may be colorblind. But it has taken root in a society that most assuredly is not, and therein lies the problem.
Health disparities between whites and blacks in America have long been a feature of national life. From hypertension to diabetes to heart disease to respiratory conditions like asthma, black folks have much higher rates of such morbidities, and thus, are at elevated risk for something like COVID.
And these disparities are not happenstance. They are not coincidental to life in America but a reflection of how life is lived here when it comes to the color line. Nor are they merely indicative, as the right (and certain folks on the left too) would have it, of “race-neutral” factors like lifestyle, or mere economics.
As for conservatives, they have long sought to pin the blame for current racial inequities on people of color themselves.
So, if they earn less, it’s because they don’t work as hard or value education enough: this being said of people who did most of the hard labor that built the country and started their own schools when whites wouldn’t allow them in ours.
If they have one-twentieth the net worth of whites, it’s because they don’t save enough or fail to understand proper investment strategies. This, being said by people who count among their number most all of the Wall Street geniuses who wiped out $12 trillion dollars in wealth just a little more than a decade ago.
And if they are less healthy, well, that must be the result of bad diet, not enough exercise, or even pre-existing genetic factors tracing back to Africa.
Colorblind liberals and leftists are hardly better. Although they would never blame black folks for their health problems, they also apparently find it unthinkable to blame whites, or at least the effects of white racism. For such persons as this, class inequity will do as an explanation.
So if people of color suffer disproportionately lousy health, it must be because they are, on average, poorer (and here, their poverty is bizarrely seen as somehow disconnected from a history of racism). Or perhaps it’s because they lack employer-covered health care because of the type of jobs they tend to have (and this too they analyze as though it were independent of racism). For liberals and colorblind leftists, if we provide universal health care, through something like Medicare for All, these disparities will largely evaporate.
But both of these schools of thought are led by fools masquerading as sages, as I explored several years ago in my book Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.
As for the right’s blame-the-victim proclivities, the data demolishes their underlying logic.
Consider infant mortality, a leading indicator of population-level health. If behavioral choices were the key to health outcomes, we would expect black women who make so-called good choices, get their degrees and hold down good jobs to have better health results for their kids than white women who make bad choices, didn’t finish school and work in lower-wage sectors of the economy. However, Black women with college degrees and good incomes, who don’t smoke, have higher rates of mortality for their infant offspring than white women who dropped out of high school, earn less, and who smoked throughout the period of gestation.
Likewise, racial disparities cannot be related to biology. When African immigrants come to the U.S., they typically have health outcomes that closely mirror those of whites, despite whatever biological or genetic differences some presume to exist between them and people of European descent. But after one generation, the children of those immigrants have health outcomes comparable to African Americans. Something is happening to black people as black people that is producing these results.
And no, it’s not mere economics. Although concerns about health care affordability loom large in the lives of black folks, even African Americans with good jobs and health care have worse outcomes than their white counterparts. Indeed, racial health disparities are largest between whites and blacks at the upper end of the income and occupational ladder, with upper-middle-income and affluent whites doing far better than comparable blacks, despite the latter’s position in the class structure.
Looking again at infant mortality: black women with access to prenatal care, who regularly go to doctor’s appointments while pregnant, have worse outcomes for their children than white women who lack care and never went to a doctor’s appointment before the birth of their child.
In short, behavioral, biological, and class factors do not explain the racial health disparities that exist in America and, thus, the pre-existing morbidities that have left black folks uniquely vulnerable to the present pandemic.
According to the research, it is racism and the experiences black folks have with discrimination, past and present, which explain much if not most of the difference in health between whites and blacks.
It is racism, whether explicit or implicit, which explains the disproportionate siting of hazardous waste facilities in communities of color, or the persistent failure to provide clean water to such communities, as in Flint, Michigan.
It is racism that explains why black folks with college degrees are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed, even when they majored in the same subject. Then, facing worse outcomes in the labor market, they are disproportionately likely to end up in jobs with less flexibility in the event of a pandemic. As such, they will be more likely to have to continue working, thereby exposing themselves to illness.
It is racism that explains the unequal treatment afforded black patients by doctors who underprescribe medication because they assume black patients exaggerate symptoms or may become dependent on certain drugs if prescribed, or won’t use them according to instructions.
What the coronavirus lays bare is the degree to which we as a nation have let these disparities metastasize, unaddressed by either right or left. We have long been content to argue about health care as if it were just a matter of funding: who pays, and how much? But it is more than that. It’s about the community-wide consequences of unequal treatment based on race. Until we think of racism and discrimination as public health issues, the same way we have long thought of smoking and obesity as such concerns, it is unlikely we will close these racial gaps.
And this is not merely a matter that ought to concern folks of color. Racial disparities in health outcomes pose risks for the rest of us as well.
As we have seen since the beginning of quarantine orders and recommendations, much of the nation’s most vital work is performed by people of color. From nursing to elder care to delivery and grocery jobs to public sector administrative jobs often derided as “bureaucracy” (but vital to ensuring the continuation of essential public services), such labor is indispensable. If those who perform it are sick, society is unwell. To write off racial disparities in health as a side issue or not worth talking about right now given the dangers facing us all, is to miss the story. We are at increased risk, in part, because of those disparities.
Likewise, if black and brown folks disproportionately have to go to work — because their jobs lack the kinds of flexibility enjoyed more often by whites — this leaves millions of such workers who are having to continue to expose themselves to illness. That, in turn, increases the risks to the rest of us, on those occasions when we have to venture out, because millions will not have received the time off and protection that they needed.
In other words, health equity is a matter of both moral urgency and practical necessity. It was before this crisis, and it will be after the present danger has passed. For millions of people, unnecessary illness and death were already far too common. What is happening now is but a supersized version of everyday reality.
Coronavirus is a mirror, reflecting the distorted image of an American promise unfulfilled. If we want to see a different image staring back at us, we’ll need to be honest about what we observe presently, rather than merely turning out the lights, so we needn’t see what’s there.