Separate and Unequal: Racial Inequality and COVID-19
by De’Zhon Grace, Carolyn Johnson, & Treva Reid
A Viral Pandemic Meets America’s Pandemic of Inequality
Earlier this month both the New York Times and ProPublica wrote about the impact of COVID-19, reporting that in states where Black communities make up only a relatively small portion of the population, nearly half — if not majority — of all COVID-19 deaths are members of the Black community. This is largely due to environmental, economic and political factors that have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems compromised: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Redlining and environmental racism, for example, have consigned Black neighborhoods to breathing some of America’s dirtiest air, drinking contaminated water, and living in food deserts.
COVID-19 is having a clearly disparate impact on the Black community, and we have a clear need for data to be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, in addition to resources focused on our most vulnerable communities.
Consider the following:
From a recent New York Times article, we know that Black people account for more than half of those who have tested positive in Chicago and 72 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up less than a third of the population. In Illinois, Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population. In Michigan, Black people account for 40 percent of the COVID-related deaths and just 14 percent of the population. In addition, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, in New Orleans Black people account for almost 60 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up less than a third of the population. Here in California, African Americans are about six percent of the population but 10.6 percent of deaths.
The AMP Research Lab reports that the Black community is experiencing a COVID-19 mortality rate 2.9 times higher than the rate for Asians, 2.7 times higher than the rate for Whites, and 2.5 times higher than the rate for Latinos. Currently, the national COVID mortality rate for Black people is 23 deaths per 100,000 residents. In six states and Washington, D.C., mortality rates exceed the national rate, New York: 88 deaths (per 100,000 residents); Michigan: 72; Connecticut: 58; Louisiana: 49; New Jersey: 32; Illinois: 30; Washington, D.C: 27.
Though we don’t have racial and ethnic data from every state, clearly Black people are dying of coronavirus at an alarming rate that is about 2.5 to 3 times higher than other groups. For the Black community this is like waking up in the middle of a horror film that adheres to the old trope of the Black people dying first, except this is real and we still have no clear sense of when this nightmare will be over.
For years, the Black community has been reported as having, on average, the lowest life expectancy compared to other communities. ProPublica reported “In Milwaukee, simply being Black means your life expectancy is 14 years shorter, on average, than someone White.” In California, 2017 data indicates that being Black in Alameda County means having an average life expectancy six to nine years less than your White or Hispanic counterparts. We are more likely to be uninsured compared to our White counterparts. and it is not by choice.
When they encounter the health care system, Black patients often get unequal treatment. When assessing pain, for example, clinicians — mostly White clinicians – underestimate, and therefore, undertreat Black patients, partially due to a common misconception that Black people have higher pain tolerance. In a recent Slate interview, Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician, mentions an algorithm that is used to allocate resources to critically ill patients, which has been shown to underestimate the needs of critically ill Black patients. So, when it comes time for hospitals and clinicians to ration resources, we can assume Black patients will be at a disadvantage.
For many reasons, homeless people are at increased risk from COVID-19. We see a disproportionate number of Black people experiencing homelessness, and many more are currently at risk for displacement due to several systemic inequalities. According to the 2018 Alameda County “Plan to End Homelessness,” Black people make up just 11 percent of the county population but 49 percent of its homeless population; in Oakland, African Americans make up a staggering 70 percent of the homeless population. According to CalMatters, Black people make up just six percent of the population in California but 30 percent of our state’s homeless population. The nightmare continues.
Black business owners are in the center of the fight against COVID-19 for several reasons. First, the median White family has nearly 10 times the amount of wealth as the median Black family, according to the Brookings Institution. This translates to our businesses having less reserves — both financial and operational — than other businesses. Not to mention the impact that negative perceptions of Black-majority neighborhoods held by consumers had on Black businesses last year. In 2019, those perceptions cost these businesses roughly $4 billion in revenue. COVID or no COVID, Black-owned businesses suffer at the hand of underinvestment due to racial and socioeconomic factors. The current pandemic exacerbates this reality.
Black businesses, and the professionals who work in them, have faced the largest impact from social distancing precautions. The largest share of Black-owned businesses with employees, 29 percent in total, are in the health care and social assistance professions. These firms account for $17 billion in annual revenue, which is the largest share of revenue generation for Black-owned firms with paid employees. These organizations include frontline healers, essential workers, and economically vulnerable workers — the glue currently holding our nation together.
Despite their importance, these organizations haven’t received the resources to sufficiently protect themselves and serve our communities, such as personal protective equipment. Based on the experience of the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative, our community-serving nonprofits in Oakland and the Bay Area, for example, have smaller quantities of Medical Grade PPE supplies, but are uniquely positioned to provide the only care that some of our community members will receive or trust.
To further put things into perspective, the second largest share of revenue generation for Black-owned businesses is the retail trade, which generates $14 billion. Retail is greatly affected by social distancing precautions, compounded by a shortage of resources to market services and products through online platforms.
The CARES Act offers relief to small businesses through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This program has to-date set-aside more than $650 billion in funding to allow small businesses to receive forgivable loans for payroll and other employee costs. This is concerning because the majority of our businesses do not have paid employees. In fact, Ron Busby, president of U.S. Black Chambers — a coalition of Black chambers of commerce — was quoted saying, “Of the 2.6 million black-owned businesses, 2.5 million have no employees.”
The first round of PPP funding only lasted two weeks and small businesses are already suing banks for funneling opportunities to larger businesses. Politico reports that each bank was “reshuffling the PPP applications it received and prioritizing the applications that would make the bank the most money.” While Congress recently approved approximately $350 billion for the second round of funding, that money is anticipated to last only two to three weeks at most.
One positive sign: The new funding sets aside nearly $125 billion for small businesses that do not have existing relationships with banks. Targeting underbanked businesses is a good start, but we need an explicit focus on Black businesses to effectively reach our most vulnerable communities.
From Resilience to Recovery
The Black community has proved its resilience time and time again, from slavery, through the Black Codes, Jim Crow, redlining, to the New Jim Crow, the New Black Codes, the War on Drugs and more. Prior to this pandemic, acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and family members has provided the much needed strength to overcome horrific times. Resilience and perseverance are in our DNA, but though they are still essential, right now more is needed.
What the Black community in Oakland and the rest of California needs is support from our elected officials, at the federal, state and local levels, backed up by concrete actions:
- In the short-term, we need Gov. Newsom and California elected officials to provide support for the frontline, grassroots nonprofits responding in real time to the crisis and filling in gaps where the public and private sector cannot or will not serve families and individuals in the Black community. We need block-by-block support for mutual aid networks as the first line of defense; testing in our communities without requiring a referral; PPE for frontline healers and essential employees, particularly the economically vulnerable workers; badges for frontline healers/street soldiers; respite for essential workers; access to subsidized and/or free mental health therapy sessions; and tailored support for our seniors (including senior centers, senior housing, service providers and food distribution).Grassroots Black organizations are ramping up service to Black neighborhoods even while their own funding goes down. Organizations such as the Black Cultural Zone, Roots Health Clinic, East Oakland Collective, Allen Temple Health and Social Services, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, Black Housing Union, Richmond Housing and Neighborhood Services, and so many more, sacrifice day in and day out in these front lines.
- Although not all nonprofits carry out functions of critical importance to the government, a surprising number of them deliver services that the Black community depends on. The modern welfare state has largely been subcontracted to nonprofits. Unfortunately, Black nonprofits that fail cannot be so easily replaced or restarted. Few have the type of hard, tangible assets that can survive a gap in income. If they fail, there is no clear motive to fueling a reconstruction. Philanthropy is not good at providing front-loaded, re-start capital at scale.
- We call on the governor and California elected officials to create specific, tangible supports for our nonprofits. It could begin with the creation of a $100 million community nonprofit grant fund that can be targeted to the Black community and other communities of color, with a common application for individuals, businesses, artists and entrepreneurs. It should provide technical assistance, including translation services, as needed. Such a fund could pre-pay existing state contracts and increase the speed and flexibility in budget reimbursements to small nonprofits to ensure they can focus on serving vulnerable families rather than just keeping the lights on. California could also create a tax credit, similar to what already exists in Massachusetts, to maximize philanthropy to small organizations.
- We also call on the governor to support another critical component of the Black community’s resilience, our small businesses — our community’s economic engine that risks being decimated due to the pandemic. We need direct relief and call on him and all officials to target the following support to Black businesses: Use supplier diversity and state agency contracting as a tool for economic stimulus directly to Black businesses; make $100 million available for mom-and-pop Black businesses and sole proprietors left out of the federal recovery funds (which in its original iteration ran out in 13 days); create a commercial rent tax credit for restaurants and non-grocery store businesses to ensure Black businesses are not driven out due to rent that was previously high and now is completely unpayable for shuttered businesses; waive annual LLC fees for small business to ensure that Black entrepreneurs, who already have approximately five cents in personal assets for every dollar of the White community’s assets, are able to protect what wealth they do have; use diverse media outlets owned by Black Californians to reach vulnerable Black communities. Also, to accomplish this targeted support and outreach, we ask the governor and legislature to put their full support behind the movement to repeal Prop 209 and stop all race-blind policy making.
- In the long term, we call on the governor and California elected officials to also address the need for a statewide ban on criminal background checks for rental housing, similar to what already exists in Oakland, and better prepare our formerly incarcerated folks to re-enter society. Our people are being released in the middle of the night without necessary resources, no place to stay, thousands of job restrictions and are being placed into the same environments that provoke recidivism. We also need rent and mortgage subsidies, increased access to banking for our underbanked and unbanked businesses and community members, and a California job corps program for our Black and Brown communities.
- We recognize that California can’t address our communities’ needs by itself. Therefore, we need a federal government that provides student loan forgiveness, universal health care, targeted long-term commitments to minority-owned communities, businesses, and nonprofits, and works to flatten the curve of racial bias. We also need expanded Community Development Financial Institutions lending for Black owned micro-businesses. There must also be data collection and transparency around the race/ethnicity of businesses that eventually receive Federal funds to ensure that Black businesses, which are on the smaller end of the small business continuum, receive proportionate access, at a minimum, to the financial, technical and marketing support, assistance and resources that are and will become available.
COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity virus. Indeed, it’s shined a spotlight on America’s pandemic of inequality. Everything we know thus far says that its burden falls disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color, especially the Black community.
The Black community is also standing up for, and standing in solidarity with, other communities who are suffering. This is particularly true of the Asian Pacific Islander American community, which is seeing a spike in despicable hate crimes, and the undocumented immigrant community, which has cruelly been denied access to federal economic recovery funds.
We call on the governor and legislative leaders to meet with us and other representatives of the Black community to discuss concrete steps the state can take in addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our community, as well as targeting our community in its recovery efforts. Governor Newsom and California elected officials must act immediately to ensure that our community’s economic engine is not decimated due to the pandemic.
About the Authors
Carolyn Johnson is the Executive Director at Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation/East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative (collectively the “Black Cultural Zone”), which operates as a coalition to innovate, incubate, inform and elevate community driven projects for the Black community’s people and culture to thrive.
Treva Reid is a resident of Oakland’s District 7 and on the Executive Board for Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA), whose primary goal is to educate, train, and involve as many African American women as possible in the political process.
De’Zhon Grace is the Economic Equity Fellow at The Greenlining Institute, which works to ensure that communities of color thrive and race is never a barrier to economic opportunity.