Who will be asked to make sacrifices to "reopen America"? That means black bodies

Black people are far more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19. Now white America wants the help back at work

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published April 18, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump | African American businesswoman (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
US President Donald Trump | African American businesswoman (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

There is still so much about the coronavirus that we do not know. But one thing we know with saddening certainty — that black communities are disproportionately more likely to die from COVID-19 — seems yet to have received proper credence from those shouting to quickly "reopen America," or from the elected officials tasked with ensuring safe and secure elections. While neither the virus nor the several state-mandated lockdowns ordered to stop its deadly spread discriminate, it's time to get specific about just who exactly is being asked to sacrifice their lives and livelihood in our rush to return to normal. 

Just how devastating has the coronavirus crisis been for black people in the U.S.? A group that accounts for just 13% of this nation's population already makes up 32% of the deaths from COVID-19, according to new nationwide statistics from the CDC. 

The racial breakdown from some states is staggering.

In Louisiana, black people make up 33% of the state's population but 70% of COVID-19 fatalities. In Mississippi, black people are 38% of the population but account for 66% of deaths. 

And the disparity isn't limited to the South, where six of the country's 10 most vulnerable states, according to the "COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index," are located. 

In Wisconsin — where the Republican legislature fought to force most residents to vote in person in last week's primary election — black people are just 6% of the population and nearly 40% of COVID-19 fatalities. In Michigan, black people represent 14% of the state's population but 40% of its deaths. In Kansas, only 6% of the population is black, but black people account for more than 30% of the deaths. Minnesota is the only state in the country where the death rate from COVID-19 for black residents is lower than their population share.

Additionally, a Washington Post analysis found that counties that are majority black have almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.

More than one in four black people nationwide said they personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died due to the coronavirus, according to a new Pew Research poll. By comparison, only about one-tenth of white and Hispanic adults said the same. The poll also found that black respondents were far more likely than white respondents to be "very concerned" they could get COVID-19 and need to be hospitalized, 31% to 18% respectively. 

This new data goes far to disprove anecdotal evidence that's been used to suggest black people were slower to heed safety guidance than other groups. So despite Surgeon General Jerome Adams' admonishment that "African Americans and Latinos should avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco" in order to "step up and stop the spread," it appears that black people are acutely aware of the danger that COVID-19 presents. The blame game about black people's supposedly unhealthy lifestyle is just seeding the ground to avoid an apology as the black bodies pile up. 

At a press briefing last week, President Trump finally acknowledged the "problem of increased impacts — this is a real problem, and it's showing up very strongly in our data — on the African American community. And we're doing everything in our power to address this challenge — it's a tremendous challenge; it's terrible — and provide support to African American citizens." But the White House has announced no plans or programs specifically meant to address the issue.

Of course it is ludicrous to think that the Trump administration, which includes not a single black person as a top White House adviser, will respond to racial inequities in any substantive manner. After all, the threat of the coronavirus is compounded by systemic racial disparities that the president is loath to admit. For example, every state in the South except Louisiana has refused to expand Medicaid, a decision that disproportionately hurts black people. In New York, an analysis of data from the city Department of Health by the Washington Post found that more than two-thirds of the 30 zip codes with the highest per-capita rates of testing for the coronavirus were whiter or wealthier than the average population of the city.

The racial disparity of the COVID-19 crisis isn't limited to the devastation caused by the pathogen. 

More than a month after many parts of American society were abruptly shuttered, it is clear that black and Hispanic people have borne the brunt of the economic costs — despite what the loud protests from Trump's mostly white supporters may suggest. 

Black people are more likely than white people to be employed in the essential services that have been exempted from state stay-at-home orders. They are more likely to work in health care and in hospitals. They are also more likely to work service-sector jobs, earning low wages and interacting with infectious items and people every day. In New York City, black people are 46% of transportation workers but only 24% of the city's overall population. So far, more than 50 transportation workers in the city have died from virus-related complications

Black households are also less likely to have an economic cushion to help them get through the pandemic and its aftermath, since the median white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the median black family. Again, acknowledgment of this racial disparity has virtually disappeared from the discussion. Congress allocated only $10 million to the Minority Business Development Agency as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill it recently passed. 

There is also emerging evidence that this fall's election will disproportionately harm the health of black voters. 

If Joe Biden selects a black woman as his running mate (as many observers expect), the resulting turnout surge from black voters could mean that tens of millions of people will be forced to face unsafe conditions to exercise their constitutional right. 

A recent poll of 800 black registered voters in eight battleground states — Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — found that 89% of black voters said they were likely to vote in this year's election. Almost half of Biden voters said they would be more enthusiastic about his candidacy if he picked a black woman as running mate, including nearly a quarter who said they didn't vote in 2016. And four out of five black voters said they would vote by mail if that option were available to them, including nearly half of those who didn't vote in 2016. But Republican legislators from Kentucky to Texas have taken steps in recent weeks to make access to the ballot box more difficult — in the midst of a pandemic. The GOP is literally exploiting the coronavirus to further its voter suppression campaign.

So let's be honest about what's happening here: Some white Americans are up in arms, demanding that the help return to work and risk death, so that their previous levels of comfort and consumption can be restored. 


By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Coronavirus Covid-19 Economic Inequality Editor's Picks Pandemic Racism