At least 20,000 black Americans have died from the virus. Their mortality rate is almost 2.5 times higher than whites, and it has never been less than twice that of Latinos and Asians, according to recent data compiled by APM Research Lab. Although they represent 13% of the country, they account for 25% of Covid-19 deaths.
The Trump administration has placed much of the responsibility for these disparities on the victims. Officials speculated on the victims’ tobacco and alcohol consumption habits and made innuendos about their diet and lifestyle choices. The underlying conditions of the American racial caste system, which is firmly entrenched in the soil of this country, were not discussed.
While Brown laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the United States, that country was built on a much more entrenched basis of white supremacy. African Americans have been considered property for longer than we have been considered citizens. Our wealth and resources have been extracted longer than we have been able to accumulate or maintain them. The intentional and overt practice of white supremacy has lasted longer than it has been unconscious and secretive, or referred to in academic circles as micro-attacks and racial privileges. The country’s highest court has claimed 66 years that segregation in public schools is inherently uneven – and 400 years of America’s claims of freedom and equality have been lip service.
Centuries of white supremacy have meant that black workers and whites do not earn the same wages, buy the same types of homes, or have the same nest eggs to pass on to their children. This has meant private acts of racism and government-sanctioned racism, often in tandem. This has meant less access to quality public schools, higher education or well-paying jobs that require expensive and advanced degrees. That means more grocery shopping in wealthy white urban neighborhoods and fewer health services for blacks and dispossessed. This means that black Americans are more dependent on public transportation, are less able to work from home, and are overrepresented in “essential” jobs. This means greater exposure to Covid-19. That means 20,000 dead.
The disproportionate death rates in some states are astounding, with large margins dotted all over the map. In Washington DC, blacks make up 44% of the population, but 80% of coronavirus deaths. In South Carolina, they account for 27% of the state and 56% of its deaths. Blacks in Michigan and Missouri account for 14% and 11% of the population, respectively – and 42% and 39% of Covid-19 deaths.
More studies are needed to determine the precise cause of these disparities. Public health research must assess why certain comorbidities, such as hypertension, may be more prevalent in black Americans than other groups, and go beyond stereotypical assumptions.
The most difficult assessment, however, is what to do next, after the worst cases have subsided and the pandemic has subsided. There must be a commitment not to return to normal, as black workers continue to be the sacrificial lambs of white American freedoms and corporate profiteers.
Over the next 66 years, to keep Brown’s promises, we must rethink and rethink our social structures. This reconsideration requires getting rid of the ingrained individualism that has allowed white landowners to equate human suffering with their rights to enslavement. He must challenge a culture that allows white liberals to pretend that they support the integration of high-potential neighborhoods while fighting hard to prevent it when they knock on their door. This requires ending the fanatical obsession with corporate profits that drives disproportionate numbers of blacks to die faster – whether in risky warehouses during a pandemic or in temporary, low-wage jobs that lack benefits. health, paid leave and sick leave. This requires governments that provide adequate safety nets for social services.
Above all, it requires a fight, because none of this will happen without. As Trump’s White House and Republican lawmakers plunder the nation’s treasury for bank and corporate bailouts, conservative state governments and their right-wing constituents are fervently calling for the country to “reopen.” The Conservatives’ long-standing verbal commitments to be anti-abortion – like the commitments to democracy and equality since the founding of this country – were easily abandoned in the interests of individual convenience. And the leaders of the liberal wing of the bipartisan system have done relatively little to challenge it.
21st century concerns about gentrification and displacement complicate the narrative of desegregation; New Yorkers of color, for example, said that equality of access to opportunities was most important to them, regardless of the racial makeup of their neighborhood. Nevertheless, Covid-19 clarified the strength of the American racial caste system. Generations after Brown, inequality is still the law of the land. But the chance remains to set another precedent.