There’s a Reason Why COVID-19 Is Killing Black and Brown Americans: It’s Called Racism

-Daniel Tadeo

For the past three months, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has not only impacted nearly every facet of our lives but has also devastated communities across the world through its growing death toll. With nearly two million confirmed cases and 110,925 total deaths1, the United States has been the most heavily affected country to date. The COVID-19 pandemic proves unprecedented to say the least; it is rare and quite unsettling to directly experience an event that will surely find its way into history books in the coming years. For the past several weeks I have followed COVID-19 reporting, which has increasingly underscored the disproportionate effect of the virus on American communities of color. At first glance, one’s naiveté may suggest minuscule environmental factors are at the root of this phenomenon. However, it’s become abundantly clear at this point that systemic racism and inequalities have accelerated the impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown Americans and reside at the core of this issue. In this week’s Tadeo Files blog post, I will share how coverage of COVID-19’s racial disparities has changed and developed in recent months. I will also highlight the historical relevance of this issue as well as actions taken by policymakers to combat it.

Coronavirus reporting in the United States first began in March with a common theme: we’re all in this together. The American public was galvanized to confront the virus head-on with social distancing measures as public figures and celebrities made superficial calls for unity. Maybe all we needed was a little motivation from movie stars singing “Imagine” to find a way through this. Though as COVID-19 cases exponentially increased, a stark reality became apparent. Certain demographics, particularly African Americans and Latinx individuals, were reported to be carrying a disproportionate burden of the virus. Obfuscating this racialized pandemic was a widespread shortage of testing for communities of color2 and a lack of racial data reported by many counties and even entire states.3 By April, it was evident that underemployed and underinsured groups like these were at a significantly higher risk to contract and die from COVID-19. Moreover, a much lower percentage of Latinx and Black workers were able to enjoy the privilege of working from home compared to their White and Asian counterparts: 9 million of America’s 24 million “frontline” employees were made up of people of color.4 It was clear that existing systems of oppression like environmental racism compounded the effect of COVID-19 and put the health of these communities at a severe disadvantage. To address legislative shortcomings from the executive branch, local officials from mayors to governors were challenged to find solutions to COVID-19’s racial disparities. Through late April and into early May, proposals were instituted like Governor Gavin Newsom’s cash payments to undocumented adults in California5 and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s COVID-19 Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity.6 While these measures are certainly a step in the right direction towards addressing coronavirus racial disparities, there is still a pressing need to face the historical trends which exacerbated the effect of coronavirus for communities of color in order to prevent devastation of this scale from happening again.

The United States has a long history rooted in the oppression and marginalization of minorities since its inception. In his book Silencing the Past, Trouillot describes the recurrent pattern of “Western” nations silencing the narratives which challenge their hegemony, domination, and superiority. The eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment fueled conversations of equality and liberty, though it soon became apparent that these ideals would not be extended to non-white groups. Intellectuals questioned the very essence of Man and established “universal” principles that would serve as fundamental human rights. John Locke, who was admired as the “father of liberalism,” proposed ideas considered foundational to American democracy. Though as an investor in a major slave trade company, he too helped fabricate this illusion of egalitarianism. Just as European entities engaged in colonization and oppression, the United States has historically alienated and otherized communities of color. Whether it be the original sin of slavery, the institution of Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or racist redlining practices, America has consistently disregarded the basic human rights of minorities. The oppression of Black and Brown individuals is neither a novel development nor a thing of the past. The COVID-19 outbreak and its disproportionate effect on communities of color as well as the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others, serve as modern testaments to the resonating systems of oppression that continue to persist today. It is thus incumbent upon all Americans, whether you’re a policymaker or concerned citizen, to keep challenging the norms and age-old traditions contributing to this oppression in order to ensure that history does not keep repeating itself.