The Discriminatory Impact of COVID-19 Posted on Monday, July 20, 2020

Confronting COVID-19, State Violence and Anti-Blackness: The Endemic Virus of Structural Racism

Anthony Browne Professor and Chair of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, Hunter College; PhD, Columbia University

The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African Americans cannot be understood without comprehending how anti-Blackness continues to shape the contours of their life chances. The legacy of connecting Black people to slavery persists in the white racial imaginary and has set up a racial contract where to be Black is to be inherently linked to an inferior status. As such, the concept of anti-Blackness captures the dehumanization, systemic racism, and constant physical danger that Black people face. While the COVID-19 virus can afflict anyone, unsurprisingly, the death toll follows the course of disposability charted by centuries-long racial capitalism that put African Americans at substantially greater risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus. The essay argues that the disproportionate, life-threatening impact of the virus on Black communities is a symptom of the wider, deeper social pandemic of structural racism, that positions these communities to experience inordinate suffering and hardship.

The Structural Context of Marginalization

Examples of anti-Blackness are seen at nearly every facet of American society. For instance, housing segregation, redlining and zoning restrictions, and environmental racism combine to inordinately force African Americans into communities that have been systematically under-resourced thus limiting their access to quality schools, food, medical care, jobs, housing and business ventures. This long-standing pattern of Black segregation is worsened by environmental racism which adds another layer of vulnerability as these communities are likely to be excessively exposed to toxins and pollutants. This is a form of invisible violence that deprives communities of healthy living environments and is compounded by unequal access to healthcare, thereby substantially intensifying the risk of chronic conditions that compromise immune systems like asthma, diabetes, and hypertension. And as recent data suggest, chronic exposures to particulate matter in the air may contribute to a risk of death from COVID-19 as much as 15 percent higher for Black Americans than that faced by their white counterparts. Regardless of class status, African Americans receive lower quality health care and suffer worse health outcomes, outcomes generally linked to less access to quality care reflecting ongoing bias in the healthcare system. Systemic inequalities in education, jobs, health, or policing are not simply unintended consequences of an unequal society, these inequalities are part of the routine functioning of these important institutions.

The Devastating Impact of COVID-19

No other nation has experienced as many infections from COVID-19, nor nearly as high a death toll as the United States. With approximately four percent of the world population, America has the dubious distinction of accounting for about 30 percent of pandemic deaths so far. According to several news outlets, the Trump administration was told by public health experts in mid-January that immediate action was required to stop the spread of COVID-19. Epidemiologists estimate 90 percent of deaths in the U.S. from the first wave of COVID-19 might have been prevented had social distancing policies been put into effect two weeks earlier. The ineptitude of the federal government has been well documented–the failure to provide a coordinated response to the forewarned pandemic, allowing severe inadequacies in testing, personal protective equipment and contact tracing—needlessly increasing the death toll.

As this public health crisis unfolds it is making even more visible the interlocking systems of racism and marginalization that continue to mark Black lives. As of this writing the coronavirus has claimed more than 136,000 American lives with projections of almost 224,000 by November, 2020. Numerous data sources confirm disturbing evidence of racial disparities in reported coronavirus deaths revealing continued deep inequities by race, most dramatically for Black and Indigenous Americans. Black Americans continue to experience the highest overall mortality rates and the most widespread occurrence of disproportionate deaths. African Americans represent 12.4 percent of the population in the U.S., but they have suffered 24.3 percent of known COVID-19 deaths— dying at twice their population share. In New York City, neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black and Latinx people, as well as low-income residents, suffered the highest death rates, while some wealthier areas — primarily in Manhattan — saw almost no deaths. In the city, Black residents accounted for 28 percent of deaths, but make up 22 percent of the population, and Latino New Yorkers represent 34 percent of those who have died of the coronavirus, but make up 29 percent of the city’s population. Nationally, in Chicago, for example, Black people account for 72 percent of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up less than a third of the population. In 16 states as well as in the District of Columbia, Black residents’ share of the COVID-19 deaths exceed their share of the population by 10 to 30 percent. Overall, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites and Asians, and 2.2 times as high as the Latino rate. As Black communities were contracting and dying from COVID-19 in unequal numbers, the tragedy was worsened by the scarcity of resources, namely testing, culturally competent medical staff, hospital beds, and ventilators, that could have potentially saved many lives.

The crisis also highlights the racial and class disparities in the work we do. As we are instructed to self-isolate, managers and professionals videoconference, practice social distancing, and remain financially secure, but high percentages of African Americans and other vulnerable workers are forced to choose between going to work to get a paycheck and their health. Since African Americans tend to be overrepresented in jobs with limited benefits that cannot be performed from home – health care support, cashiers, transportation and food service – they are at greater risk for contracting the virus and face a dilemma of working while ill and potentially exposing others.

Blaming African Americans: A Familiar Narrative

The coronavirus epidemic has rendered the racial contract visible in multiple ways. Once the incommensurate racial impact of the epidemic was revealed many political leaders and media outlets began to blame African Americans for their deaths. Not surprisingly, instead of addressing how more than a century of structural racism, political exploitation, and economic exclusion compounded disparities in Black and other vulnerable communities, explanations shifted to the neoliberal mantra of individual behavior and personal responsibility reflecting the persistent belief in Black difference and inferiority. The familiar and well-worn narrative that Black people do not take care of themselves reflects a long-held racist notion that elides the role of social conditions in the production of disease and inequality. For example, senior Trump administration officials blamed the disparities on the high incidence among Black people of underlying health conditions. The health secretary, pointed to their “greater risk profiles”, and was rightly criticized for victim blaming. Similarly, the US Surgeon General delivered a now infamous press briefing at the height of pandemic, calling on Black and Latinx communities to step up and help stop the spread of the virus by “avoid[ing] alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” He went on to temper his comments, stating that it was “possible” that social ills were contributing to the alarming rates of death in these communities. However, he failed to mention the ills he was referring to, and inexplicably made no reference to structural racism, a key concept in the public health literature. But his assumptions echoed racist ideas that have long permeated America’s ideas about Black moral deficiency and vice.

Moving Forward: Dismantling Structural Racism

To be sure, the confluence of the pandemic’s devastating impact on African American communities and the recent nation-wide protest against well publicized state sanctioned police killings of Black men and women are representative of the ongoing and pernicious legacy of the racial contract – further reminders of the state’s failure to protect the humanity, citizenship, and human rights of people of African descent. The unprecedented weeks-long Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S., reflecting broad-based diversity along racial, ethnic, gender, class, and religious lines, has seemingly forced the nation to an inflection point where we may begin a process of reimagining institutions that perpetuate structural racism. But we first need to understand how and why African American and other communities confront durable economic and social vulnerability. Efforts to mitigate the effects of this pandemic must work in concert with a commitment to dismantling the structural and institutional mechanisms of racial inequity that existed long before this crisis. Therefore, to address health inequality, we must address the nexus of social, economic, political, legal, cultural, educational, and health care systems that maintain structural racism by enacting far-reaching public policy reforms. This must include strong anti-discrimination enforcement as well as initiatives that provide access to high quality universal healthcare, housing, education, mental health and childcare, and robust funding for business development, debt forgiveness and wealth creation. Defunding policing, environmental justice and reparations must be integral to credible reform efforts.

Given the many changes we have watched since the start of the pandemic – trillions of dollars in social spending, changes in the healthcare delivery system, remote work, and policy reforms– make clear that fundamental changes can be implemented in a short period. We must marshal the political will to create a society where when we say, “we’re in this together,” we also mean race should not overdetermine who lives or dies. To borrow the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”


Professor Browne is Chair of the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. He has taught at the university level since 1997 and joined the Department in 2001. He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and Master’s degree from UCLA. Trained as a sociologist, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

His research, scholarship and teaching concerns issues related to Black Diasporic communities with a focus on poverty, gentrification, Africana sociology, social movements and second generation immigrants. His most recent publications focused on the impact of the Great Recession on Black and Latino communities in New York City. Prof. Browne is currently completing a manuscript on the impact of gentrification in Central Brooklyn. He is the recipient of several grants and awards for his research including: the George M. Shuster faculty fellowship, several PSC-CUNY awards, and the CUNY Diversity Projects Development Fund. He is a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate, and a member of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Thomas Hunter Honors Program.

Prof. Browne is the former book review editor for the journal Wadabagei, and is currently vice-president of ATIRA Corp., a think tank focused on the African Diaspora. He has served as a consultant to several foundations and community based organizations around the issue of capacity building and neighborhood change. He is a longtime resident of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn, New York.