Black People Are Dying
We Always Are. But Especially Now Amid COVID-19
Some of my research pertains to health disparities among people of color; especially black people, who suffer disproportionately from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes as compared to their white counterparts. That’s why I sadly wasn’t surprised when I saw that while 30% of the population of Chicago is black, black people have comprised over 70% of coronavirus-related deaths in the city. And this isn’t the only city where we see this happening. It is devastating. So… why is this happening so pervasively? Let’s use some of the extra free time that social distancing has granted (some of) us to better understand what’s going on.
So, how is the coronavirus impacting black people overall? A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that black workers are less likely than white workers to report they will still be paid if they have to miss work due to the virus. They also found that black people across all age groups are more likely to view the coronavirus as a threat to their personal health. And rightfully so; black people are literally dying at disproportionate rates across the country. The Atlantic just published an article discussing (with specific figures) how the global coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color. In this piece, author Ibram X. Kendi lists state after state where black Americans are becoming infected with the coronavirus and dying from it at alarming rates. It appears that the data from Chicago ignited our awareness of this disparity, but let us become aware of how pervasive COVID-19 racial disparities are across all of the United States, and consider the possible reasons for this.
Could it be poverty? We know that in the United States, black Americans suffer disproportionately from poverty as a result of generations and generations of institutional racism that originates back to the transatlantic slave trade. If you didn’t know this, stop reading this piece and go do your homework. Many working-class people are considered “essential workers”, and have been at greater risk of being infected because they don’t have the luxury of working from home during this deadly global pandemic. Are black people dying at greater rates because we are more likely than some other groups to be working class? Probably definitely. Then I stumbled across this: Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, where Black residents account for 70% of Corona-related deaths but only 32% of the population, said that they are still trying to “figure out what [the racial disparity] is attributable to”. However… in a state where the poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average, black residents don’t appear to suffer disproportionately from poverty. So we know at least in certain states, poverty isn’t totally to blame.
The racial disparities we are seeing with COVID-19 are closely linked to more general preexisting racial health disparities that span back as far as the economic inequality mentioned above. Compared to their white counterparts, black people are more likely to have underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and test as HIV Positive. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists these groups as people at greater risk for more serious complications related to COVID-19, including death.
Researchers spanning across many academic disciplines have demonstrated an interest in studying the antecedents and consequences of these health disparities. Some antecedents include socioeconomic status and limited access to healthcare among black Americans. As a soon-to-be-counseling-psychologist, I am interested in the harmful impact of discrimination on health outcomes of racial-ethnic minorities. And in a time where we are seeing a spike in racial hate crimes against Latinos, blacks, and now Asian Americans… we must consider racial discrimination as a factor impacting the experiences of racial-ethnic minorities during these unprecedented times.
There is a large body of research linking racial disparities in health to racial discrimination. While socioeconomic inequality is one of the strongest predictors of health, some of the most profound racial health disparities are found among nonpoor Latinos and blacks. One study found that among a nationally representative sample of young adults, having experienced racial discrimination partially explained why black respondents had more negative self-reported health outcomes than whites. Other research has found links between racial discrimination and markers of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure. The stressors of racism and discrimination can partially explain why black Americans are predisposed to underlying health problems which put them at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
Other research demonstrates that we see the most prominent healthcare disparities (in terms of quality of care) between black and white patients in part due to prejudice, stereotype endorsement, and discrimination against black patients by medical providers. For example, physicians may be more inclined to not recommend certain medical procedures for candidates in need due to racial stereotypes that the patient is less educated and will not follow post-surgery recommendations. Right now, we are seeing in some places that black people with coronavirus-type symptoms are being disproportionately denied tests. These longstanding prejudices continue even in times of crisis.
These prejudices are also impacting the behavior of some racial-ethnic minorities. Some black people are reportedly afraid to wear homemade masks in public due to the pervasive stereotype associating black men with criminality. In a country where black men are disproportionately murdered by police, with a large body of empirical research suggesting this is due to shooter implicit racial bias…can we blame them? It seems as if some folks are feeling as if they’re caught in between a rock and a hard place: risk becoming infected with coronavirus, or risk being perceived as a criminal which can also have lethal consequences. And then apparently, once potentially infected, risk not being taken seriously by medical professionals and dying anyway.
We must wake up to these issues. Civil rights leaders, doctors, politicians, and journalists are demanding that federal health officials release demographic data related to the coronavirus outbreak so that these disparities can better be addressed. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for reparations. There is a lot of movement every day, and to the extent that each of us has the emotional capacity to handle the information, we must continue developing our consciousness around these issues. We must pay attention to the communities that are receiving services and resources, and more importantly the communities who are not.