Structural Racism Helps Explain COVID-19 Disparities

The COVID-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to make structural changes for a better society

While some people are practicing social distancing by lounging in their multi-million vacation homes, others continue to work on the front lines risking their health and safety. Those at the front-lines are primarily people of Color.

These are volatile, minimum-wage positions, and people with no option but to stay at work. While those with higher incomes, job stability and wealth adapt to working from home, essential workers expose themselves daily on their commute and at their jobs. 

Because of this, people of Color are disproportionally more likely to test positive for and die from COVID-19, according to data from about 51 percent of total cases in Washington. 

King County’s Hispanic or Latino population makes up approximately 17 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases despite making up only 10 percent of the total population. For Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, it’s 1.7 percent of confirmed cases and 0.8 percent of the population. For African Americans, it’s 7.5 percent and 6.4 percent.  

Institutional and structural racism underlie these disparities, but the federal administration is focusing solely on individual behavior. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has argued that Black people are “socially predisposed,” urging Black people to stop drinking, smoking or doing drugs. He has also stated that “people of Color are more likely to live in densely packed areas and in multigenerational housing situations, which create higher risk for spread of highly contagious disease like COVID-19.” 

Adams is wrong because the strongest predictors of health are socioeconomic status and race, not alcohol use or family size. Financial instability can lead to volatile health care coverage and sub-par housing situations in which water and air quality are low, leading to a variety of health outcomes.  

The current crisis highlights the racism embedded into our structures and institutions, and how race significantly impacts health outcomes at all socioeconomic levels. It also gives us the opportunity to begin making the structural changes necessary to come out of this into a better “new normal.” 

In the past, the medical field has failed to deal with its history of the exploitation of Black and brown bodies to advance science. For example, the ‘father of gynecology’ experimented on a number of women to treat fistulas between 1845-1849. These enslaved women receive little to no pain medication, suffered greatly, and could not consent.  

To this day, medical professionals receive training that leads them to believe Black people less when they express symptoms of pain. The idea that Black people’s pain is not real is a remnant of the commodification and dehumanization of Black bodies throughout the world. Western colonizers described native peoples of various continents as savage, sub-human, and otherly. 

Washington, like many other states, also has a long history of racially restrictive covenants and red-lining that have kept people of Color in limited and specific neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were restricted from accessing essential financial capital to build their communities. While these formal policies are no longer legal, their impact continue today, as people of Color instead receive highercost and higherrisk mortgages.  

This government-backed discrimination has led to an array of problems correlated with poor health. Communities of Color live in food deserts and have less access to healthy food options. They are also more likely to live in close proximity to waste facilities and factories. As a result, people may suffer from respiratory health problems, diabetes, and heart disease.   

Racial segregation has also resulted in educational segregation, limiting communities of Color to low-resourced schools, from which their children are more likely to drop out. 

Still, people of Color across all educational levels continue to make less than and accumulate less wealth over time than their white counterparts. In addition to limited opportunity, people of Color experience pay discrimination and discrimination in the workplace, including being policed more strictly for their behavior, often under the guise of professionalism. For people at the intersection of racial and gender discrimination, the path to economic security can be even more shaky.  

In addition to the human crisis this reality presents, these gaps are significant dangers to our public and economic health. This is clearer today than ever before.

Rather than blaming individual behavior, it is essential that we reckon with the continuing impact of institutional and structural racism. COVID-19 continues to highlight this.  

  • Leave a Reply
    • Keith Schlemlein

      Your arguments are ridiculous. You site examples from 1845 and redlining from the 50’s. News flash this is 2020 none of that stuff exists anymore. If a bank ever charged a person of color higher interest rates and mortgage costs because they are a person of color they would not only get the crap sued out of them by the individual but the government would rip their lungs out. You make it sound like our institutions are full of racists perpetuating their evil discrimination. Could you please name these racist institutions and the evil people that run them? I’m not saying its easy for someone that didn’t have good examples or made choises that hinder them. That goes for people of all races. The most successful people I know, black, white, latino or whatever didn’t make excuses or blame others for their circumstances they didn’t accept “no”,they just worked their butts off
      and made themselves successful

      May 24 2020 at 6:17 PM

    • Sara Bekele

      Thank you for your comment. Black and Latinx households are, in fact, more likely to be charged higher rates of interest and more likely to be denied loans, such as mortgage loans, even when controlling for things such as income, debt-to-income ratio, credit scores, etc.

      Additionally, hard work may pay off for some, but individual behaviors cannot change whole systems. Black households with college degrees still accumulate less wealth than their white counterparts over time. Whether Black households have good examples or not does not mitigate the fact that they are paid less at work, accumulate more debt when going to college, and cannot rely on generational wealth and inheritance.

      Policies and institutions of the past have created these realities. Our institutions have yet to address them. Instead, intentionally or not, they perpetuate these disparities. Banks, K-12, the higher education system, the incarceration and policing system, the health care system, the taxation and revenue system, and more all perpetuate the existing wealth gap, which are a result of the lasting impact of our state-sanctioned, racist past.

      Jun 5 2020 at 3:17 PM

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