As recently as a few months ago, many Americans brushed off the spread of COVID-19 thinking they were out of its reach if they were young and healthy, but now are coming to grips with the fact that this virus does not discriminate against its next victim. Or maybe it does. With the surge in cases, we’re also seeing a surge in racism being demonstrated against multiple marginalized communities. For other communities such as African Americans, the surge in cases reveals an already existent but less commonly known prejudiced setup in our American system.
Disparate treatment manifested first toward Asian Americans, putting them under more stress to not only keep themselves safe from the virus but also against the bigotry that comes with it. It is a stark rerun of the kind of discrimination directed toward Muslim Americans after 9/11 as well as the mass persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The effect of coronavirus on businesses has been very significant, as there is a lack of workers and capital that is necessary to sustain them, but Chinese businesses are being hit especially hard. The owner of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor said that even before the virus reached New York, he was losing a lot of business partially because of misinformation. The executive director of New York’s Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation said that since February, Chinese businesses in Chinatown, New York, have declined in sales up to 80%. Reports also claim that taxi drivers refuse to drop paying customers off in areas in the city with a high Chinese population. The Asian American community also has to face social tensions that arise from the virus like verbal and physical abuse, creating fears that can make Asians not want to leave their homes, not unlike the virus itself. The phrase “Chinese virus” has also been thrown around in public, being used by government officials like the President himself, despite recommendations by the WHO to not use geographic locations when naming diseases. It seems the use of this phrase has declined, after many realized how isolating a term it was, creating an “us and them” scenario against Asian Americans. However, this is just one of many forms of insult being used and its reduction doesn’t relieve the brunt of the injustice.
The impact of coronavirus doesn’t only cause prejudiced behavior; it brings to light the constant marginalization found in America’s racist socio-economic structure. According to the Washington Post, African Americans accounted for 70% of coronavirus-related deaths in Louisiana despite the fact that they only constitute 32% of the state’s population. Similar statistics arise from Chicago, with African Americans comprising 67% of the city’s COVID-19 death toll while the group itself only makes up 32% of Chicago’s population. Unfortunately, these disproportionate rates continue to grow and present themselves in other parts of the country such as Wisconsin and New York, where cities or counties that have a larger concentration of African Americans or other minority groups tend to face the force of the pandemic in a more pronounced manner.
Image source: CDC; https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aahealth/index.html
The most apparent reason for this is the correlation between race and economic condition. This trend creates a domino effect as it is a potential contributor to the fact that African Americans in the U.S. have a greater tendency to have more long-lasting conditions such as lung and heart disease. African Americans also face a greater risk of having comorbidities, where multiple conditions together can pose a more inevitably lethal threat. Therefore, the already existing conditions put them in a state where they are less able to fight against the virus and more likely to pass away. This disparity exposes another disparity as well: lack of access to healthcare. The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured claims that African Americans and other minority groups are more likely to be uninsured than white Americans. Without access to consistent, affordable healthcare, many African Americans are unable to receive the treatment or advice needed to combat conditions that could be preventable. Furthermore, if African Americans had greater access to healthcare in the first place, they would be less at risk for the underlying conditions that put them in such grave danger in the first place.
Another inequality that bolsters the disproportionate impact stems from occupation. According to a statement made by William Rogers from the Heldrich Center for Workforce and Development to CNN on April 4, the estimated unemployment rate for African Americans was 20.7% while the official rate was 4.1%. The mentioned issue of unequal economic conditions also creates the problem of having to thrive in more poor, crowded, and urban areas. According to a Pew Research article, minority groups like African Americans are becoming the majority in urban areas. This makes them more susceptible to close human contact simply because of the places where they live and how they commute to work.
When taking a look at the issues of healthcare, occupation, and living standards and how they all pose threats to African Americans during this pandemic it is important to note one thing: these issues didn’t appear magically. The fact that African Americans have more underlying health conditions is not simply due to biological factors. The reason that African Americans tend to live in areas that might not keep them as secure during these times didn’t happen fortuitously. They have been created due to a snowballing of systematic racism within our country over long stretches of history. One example of this could be seen when taking a look at the Home Owners’ Loan Act which created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). The HOLC was part of the New Deal and its main goal was to provide housing loans to Americans. In order to provide these loans however, the HOLC had to evaluate the risk of doing so and therefore created “Residential Security Maps.” According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), these maps seem to practice what is now referred to as redlining, loan discrimination based on the geographic area, and often race. These areas were described with terms such as “Desirable” or “Hazardous” to signal the likeliness of repayment, but the revealing aspect is that the NCRC concluded that the “Desirable” areas have remained white while the “Hazardous” areas tended to have minorities like African Americans. Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins says that determining whether a location is deemed hazardous was based on discriminatory factors such as the racial composition of the area. The labeling of “Hazardous” to certain areas likely resulted in fewer opportunities for African Americans and others living in those areas and could have resulted in unreliable government services or a decline in property values. ProPublica also states that 98% of loans given by the Federal Housing Administration between 1934 and 1962 went to whites. This issue of housing discrimination does have an effect not only on living standards but also on the topic of healthcare because redlined African Americans and other minority residents may live in environmentally unsafe areas with poor air or water quality and may be farther away from reliable food stores or health institutions. Statistics from the NCRC, that 74% of neighborhoods marked “Hazardous” almost a century ago house residents with low to moderate income, show how the lasting effect of housing discrimination has carried on to this day.
Besides these glaring issues, there are also a number of underlying problems that are easier to miss but equally consequential. This includes some of the deep-rooted discrimination toward non-whites in our criminal justice and law enforcement systems. This leads to the largely disproportionate population of African Americans seen in jails today, and of course in jails, it is far more difficult to follow the advice of the medical professionals and practice social distancing. Plus, there is an even more disheartening reality; even the guidelines urging people to wear masks bring with them problems with discrimination. Many African Americans fear wearing masks and other facial coverings due to the increased possibility that they will be racially profiled because masks are associated with gangs or criminals.
During these times, there are many examples of forces in our society trying to come together despite having to physically “stay apart.” Fundraisers are being held to support local businesses and hospitals, people are buying groceries for their elderly neighbors, and music and art are being created to lift people’s spirits. But still, with the arrival of what some are calling “the Great Equalizer,” we actually see that dividing forces are manifesting themselves even more intensely. Blatant racist violence is on the rise. and the lasting flaws of inequality in our socio-economic system now carry a death sentence for many. It is difficult to talk about issues like this, but Bryan Stevenson says it best: “There is this disconnect,” referring to the tendency we have to be inattentive when it comes to issues that don’t directly affect us. We must acknowledge the marginalization and derogation so that during times like these when it is needed most, we will be able to focus on hopefulness and unity. We have the ability to do so and we must do it now.
Azam Lalani is currently a sophomore at Syosset High School in Long Island, NY. He enjoys playing table tennis, hanging out with friends, and watching the news. He hopes to learn more about politics and current events by writing and researching for NGP.