Black Americans 2.6 Times More Likely to Die From COVID-19

A public health debacle that can only be cured by addressing racism

By Hop Hopkins

May 25, 2020


Photo by AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

When I saw the Washington Post headline “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate,” I had to take a few hours off from work just to catch my breath.

It’s not like I was surprised. Black folks saw this outcome a mile away—we live every day with the knowledge that our lives are devalued. But it’s still hard to see the death toll roll in. We have an old saying: When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia. No, I’m not surprised that Black folks are dying at elevated rates. But I’m still angry.

There’s nothing special about this particular disease that makes it hit Black communities the hardest. This pandemic isn’t a conspiracy against Black communities. It’s so much bigger than that. Our entire society is a conspiracy against Black communities. 

The hugely elevated mortality rate for Black people from COVID-19—2.6 times that of white people—is the inevitable outcome of generations of public policies that devalue Black bodies and lives. Polluting facilities that drive up rates of asthma and heart disease are consistently located in Black communities, and the pollution from these facilities directly causes more people to die from COVID-19. In addition, we have known for decades that Black people are more likely to die young and suffer from debilitating health conditions because of our society's disinvestment in Black health. 

And today, Black workers are more likely to be considered “essential.” Practically, this means that we are risking our lives in jobs to protect all communities, even though we face an elevated likelihood of death. US society deems us expendable.

Just about every large-scale public health crisis in the United States impacts Black folks first and worst—just look at Black maternal mortality rates for one example—with Indigenous communities and other people of color also suffering at disproportionate rates. And aside from COVID-19, there’s no bigger public health crisis ahead of us than the climate chaos already impacting vulnerable communities around the world. 

The racism of our society is at the core of these crises, and in order to have any hope of a just transition to a clean energy economy, that racism must be undone. The scholar john a. powell, a professor of law and African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has introduced a concept called targeted universalism, which says that if you’re trying to undo social disparities, you have to target solutions and resources at impacted communities. It’s common sense: To undo the racial wage gap, you can’t just raise the minimum wage—you have to find a way to raise wages for people of color specifically. 

We need targeted universalism in the transition away from extraction and fossil fuels. We need a just transition led by Black communities, for Black communities. What we need, most of all, is reparations.

And I don’t just mean reparations for slavery, though that would be a good place to start. The United States government rightly paid reparations to Japanese American families who were unjustly and illegally detained during World War II, but not for the genocide of Native peoples or the theft of their lands. Communities that have been treated as sacrifice zones by big polluters have been calling for reparations for the harm done to them since at least 1991. So much of the wealth in the United States was built on a foundation of theft and enslavement; by returning some of that wealth to the people it was stolen from, we can begin to undo the intergenerational harm done to Black and Indigenous communities.

Undoing this harm is a society-wide project, not something to defer only to people of color. If we as a movement fail to recognize the ways that our existing systems devalue and put Black lives at risk, we won’t be able to build new systems founded on justice. 

Together we can build a better society through efforts like a Green New Deal, but if we’re not intentional, we’ll build a better society for everyone except Black folks. As my comrades at Movement Generation like to say, “A transition is inevitable—justice is not.” A world powered by clean energy can be “sustainable” but still leave Black folks behind.

All of us must learn from this tragedy. I refuse to allow the deaths of at least 20,000 Black people from COVID-19 to go unacknowledged or unaddressed. That means systematically tracking racial outcomes in COVID-19 mortality. Right now we don’t even know the true scale of the problem. 

It also means advocating for relief bills that specifically target Black communities and other vulnerable communities of color—in particular, Indigenous folks lacking access to water and health care. 

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Black communities in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast never truly recovered from the violence done to them by an anti-Black government. Ten years after Katrina, 60 percent of Black people impacted by the storm reported that their community had not recovered, while 80 percent of white people said the opposite. 

This time around, we must fight for a just recovery. By including targeted investments in Black communities in COVID-19 response, we can begin paving the road to a true just transition through this crisis and the climate crisis as well. 

The Movement for Black Lives has put forth a platform of demands for a COVID-19 response that prioritizes Black communities and other communities of color. People of power and privilege should follow the lead of the communities in the front lines of this crisis. Our collective response to COVID-19 must be a down payment on long-term solutions to the institutional racism that compromised Black health in the first place.