April 23, 2020

Racial Disparities During Covid-19

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By Zion Campbell, state and local policy intern

Covid-19 has taken over our communities for the past two months. So many people have been impacted by it, and it’s been labeled by many as the great equalizer, something that can affect everybody no matter race or income. But is that really the case? Well not entirely. 

In the past month, more data has been released by states and localities on the racial inequities among those infected with Covid-19 and the disparity is alarming. In Chicago, African Americans make up more than half of those who have tested positive for the virus and account for “72 percent of virus related fatalities in Chicago”, according to a recent New York Times article. At the state level, African Americans make up 15 percent of the Illinois population, but account for 43 percent of Covid-related fatalities. 

How We got Here

African Americans are at a higher risk of contracting the virus for a variety of reasons: their concentration in urban areas, poor health outcomes and lower-wage work that does not lend itself to telework options. The Economic Policy Institute notes that only 20 percent of African Americans report being able to work from home during this time. Initial research points to high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity as posing a higher risk of infections among the African American community. Considering these disparities, it’s not surprising that a disturbing number of African Americans are contracting the virus. These inequalities are not new – they have been prevalent in black communities for a while now, rooted in the historically racist practice of redlining which has allowed inequality to flourish. Over time, this has negatively affected these communities and limited their access to health care, making these communities one where the virus can thrive. 

This country’s housing system has intentionally created these circumstances by concentrating poverty in predominantly African American communities through the practice of redlining; the denial of loan services by federal and local governments to communities of color. Combining redlining with zoning requirements that dictated the density of neighborhoods made it easier for localities to concentrate African Americans in high density neighborhoods. This created a huge barrier for African Americans to maintain wealth through homeownership. Owning a home meant that a family could earn enough wealth to pay for education or start a business. Not having this as an opportunity for many African American families made economic mobility drastically more difficult, forcing them to sacrifice necessities did not leave any room for maintaining wealth or upward mobility. (See Enterprise's blog on Linking Housing Challenges and Racial Disparities in Covid-19)

Changing History 

Policies can be changed, mistakes can be rectified and growth as a country is very possible. Changing zoning codes or upzoning to provide historically separated communities a choice and access to opportunity is a very much needed first step.

Places like Minneapolis, MN were the first to upzone its communities by permitting duplexes and triplexes in single-family zoned neighborhoods across the city, with the intentions of increasing density and affordability in historically white neighborhoods. In Austin, TX at the end of 2016, the Mayor created a Task Force on Institutional Racism and System inequities to begin diving deep into the practices that have furthered inequality in their communities and think through policies that can rectify them. In 2012, the Albuquerque, NM Mayor implemented skills-based hiring throughout the city so that applicants can be tested on a set of core competencies that a job requires, allowing residents who might not have a traditional background the opportunity to apply their talents. Cities are on the front lines of racial inequity and are stepping up to provide all communities access to high opportunity neighborhoods to try and promote not only racial but health equity as well as in their cities. States, localities, and the federal government should be looking at these and many more cities as examples as to how to move forward from racist practices that have left many African American communities without the resources needed to combat a pandemic.

Next Steps

Covid-19 has essentially put a microscope over the structural and institutional racism that is embedded in our communities. The only way to remedy this is with legislation focused on racial equity, improved health outcomes in low-income and rural communities, and actively undoing structural racism. It’s important to look at cities like Minneapolis, Austin, and Albuquerque as examples of how to intentionally advance racial equity in communities across the country. 

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