The coronavirus is omnipresent. It has infected people in every state, in big cities and rural communities, and from every economic class. It has infected and killed men and women of all ages and all races. Even so, in the words of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans and other people of color have shouldered “a disproportionate burden of illness and death” from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. A new study this week, led by Amfar and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, found that disproportionately black counties account for 22 percent of all counties but have 52 percent of coronavirus cases and 58 percent of deaths from covid-19.
Darren Hutchinson, a law professor who studies the law’s impact on race and gender, thinks white Americans can learn a thing or two about racism from the pandemic. How the fear and uncertainty they are feeling now is not unlike what African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others feel all the time.
Hutchinson, an associate dean at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, elaborated on that notion during a recent conversation with About US. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Unlike other disasters and crises, the coronavirus seems to have laid bare the structural inequities across the board — in health care, economics, even in criminal justice — all at once. Do you agree? How is that affecting society?
Everyone’s vulnerable. In terms of geography, it’s all over the country. Every age group potentially can be affected. It’s across gender. And to the extent that structural racism impacts people along all of those axes, this is a moment where it’s really going to stand out. In terms of the fear that a lot of people, generally, have right now — and I know it’s higher among people of color — but this is the fear and anxiety that people of color experience on a daily basis. The virus is not only showing us how pervasive inequality is, it’s also giving us a moment to think about how living daily in that structural racism creates this anxiety.
You know how you’re scared to go outside right now because you don’t know if the virus might be transmitted to you? How you’re scared you might lose your job right now and you don’t know how you’re going to take care of your kids? That’s how racism feels every day. … You cannot only see inequality in things like health care, but feel this emotional experience of fearing something that’s out there but you can’t really control it. That’s how racism works.
But some people would argue that you can arm yourself against racism by being responsible — go to school, get a job, stay out of trouble, etc.
Yes, personal responsibility. Everyone should strive to be the best that they can on an individual level, but opportunity is not simply a product of individual effort. Instead it’s about the resources one is endowed with at birth and how society and its institutions respond to you. White people have a different level of endowment of privileges at birth and institutions that support them — they have different experiences navigating institutions. A lot of the health effects we’re seeing have to do with preexisting conditions and comorbidities, but that’s not just a product of poverty. There have been a lot of studies where, even if you control for income and whether or not people have insurance, people of color received a different quality of health care because of implicit bias. Black women in particular have a high rate of death during childbirth — across income levels. It’s a classic indicator that it’s about more than people not taking care of themselves. There are external constrictions on what people of color can do and have in our society.
Black people are often criticized for not working, but this pandemic has shown that not only are they working, but they’re working in essential jobs that they can’t do from home, and putting themselves at risk for the virus.
The virus has exposed that even when people of color are employed, they are often in jobs that pay less and don’t give them room to grow in terms of entering into management or higher-skilled positions, positions that would enable them to have higher incomes. And also they are the first to be fired when it comes to layoffs. Even among those black people who have the types of jobs that enable them to work from home, if those companies start laying off people, I predict there will be racial disparity in who gets laid off, for any number of reasons — maybe they have less experience or they are the most recently hired person. The seniority model always discriminates against people of color.
Some black people are suspicious that because the virus has disproportionately affected black people, some government leaders don’t care and that’s why they’re rushing to open up the economy. Does that sound like a conspiracy theory or is there something there?
Black people often accept conspiracy theories, particularly when it comes to illness and health because of the negative experiences historically, like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. To a great extent in communities that are marginalized, often society starts attacking victims of disease. When AIDS was a gay disease, people attacked the victims. When it became a black disease, it became even worse. A lot of the history of the failure of government to fund research on AIDS, a lot of that had to do with racism and homophobia. There are many historical examples of failure to take illnesses seriously because the impact was more felt in marginalized communities. The other issue is we have a president who is sort of not a fan of science. That makes it even more difficult to develop a strategy that not only protects everyone but protects the most vulnerable people.
I think there is something to the fact that — blacks in red states can’t control statewide elections and don’t have power at the state level — we are seeing lot of red states move toward reopening. In many of those states, blacks have power at the local level but don’t have it statewide, but they are most impacted by the virus and these are places where they are a significant part of the population. Georgia is a classic example of that statewide. They have a Republican governor who is moving aggressively to reopen the state, but the disease is very prominent in Atlanta and Albany, places highly populated by blacks. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think there is a degree of callousness toward the population most affected by the illness on the part of some of the governors pushing reopening.
And calling this an Asian disease, a Chinese illness, made race front and center with this virus from the very beginning. In early American history, particularly the 19th century, there was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment toward people from China that had to do with this perception of filth and illness. We’re seeing that same discourse today, the increase in racism toward Asians.
Latinos haven’t received as much attention, but those disparities exist with Latinos as well. In New York City, everybody is vulnerable, but even there you have a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos infected. Latinos have higher rates of uninsurance than blacks, and some of that has to do with them working even more menial jobs in agriculture, where they have no health care, and some of it has to do with their undocumented status and those individuals, despite poverty, not being able to qualify for public health plans like Medicaid.
Another vulnerable group are people in prisons and jails, which are major hot spots. Social distancing is extraordinarily difficult. People are in close confinement. They can’t avail themselves of their of masks. They don’t have the ability to get hand sanitizers on their own. There is a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in jail and prison.
Back to people of color who are concerned that their political leaders aren’t being responsive to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus in their communities. What are they to do?
How do you get something beneficial for your community when, not only do you not control the statewide political apparatus, but it is hostile to you? The problem is not only that blacks are not widely represented at the state level, the state politicians, because of partisanship and racism, they are actually hostile to black voters. There’s a lot of reporting on how these governors did not implement social distancing measures early on, but if you look at the county level, in Florida, for example, before the governor issued his executive order, the vast majority of the population in the state was under state-at-home orders because of county and city level restrictions. It’s important to remember in those counties that blacks and Latinos have a larger voice and cannot discount the importance of local politics. Another angle, but now it’s not the best angle, is the federal government. When states fail, the federal government has been there to assist vulnerable communities. Right now we don’t have that. Vulnerable communities cannot look to the Trump administration for support. He’s telling people to go out and resist social distancing. This is a bad moment, probably the worst moment, for a pandemic to appear, particularly for people of color who need to rely on the federal government because the state is not sympathetic to their concerns.
The greatest thing is that coalition politics is happening across state boundaries. There’s a good amount of activism and protest with respect to Trump’s response to the virus, not only from blacks in the South but from supportive people across the United States. To some extent that means that people in the federal government, like [Anthony S.] Fauci and others, are still being vigilant even if the president is not being supportive of them. The entire federal government does not shut down because of the president. It might not be as aggressive as you might want, but still people can be pushed to do things. So don’t let go of the opportunity for change because the political environment is not entirely friendly to you. Even in Florida [Gov. Ron] DeSantis’s reopen order did not apply in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which is the epicenter of the virus and has a high concentration of people of color. A lot of that has to do with pressure, not only in Florida, national pressure, media coverage focused on DeSantis not be as aggressive in responding to the virus as other states. It actually mattered and impacted him. There are a lot of different levers to push for social change and you cannot give up any one of them.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
The mental health issue, I think, has been under-discussed generally, but it has not been linked to race. Social distancing causes a lot of emotional stress. It means people are vulnerable to isolation, like elderly people or people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder. It may mean they need extra support right now. Another piece of it is the economic consequences and the impact of the illness on certain communities, and that can cause a lot of anxiety. I’m not surprised that you have the most anxiety among blacks and Latinos with respect to losing your job, about you being able to find another job and also about whether or not you are going to become infected. That is a lot of potential stress and distrust that could actually exacerbate the infection because chronic stress can you make you more vulnerable to infection. And people who are less likely to have access to mental health-care providers are blacks and Latinos.
So this virus is wide and it shows everything in a way that a lot of other events don’t bring to the fore. This one cuts across everything, and everyone gets to witness it because we all are paying attention and it’s just hard to avoid it. I’ll go back to what I said at the start of this conversation. This type of stress that whites are feeling now, about being sick, will I be able to get health care, will I have a job, economic anxiety, all of those things people of color feel all the time because of racism. Racism is like this virus: It’s floating around. It may hit me today; it may cause me to lose my job; it may mean that I have to get health care; it may mean I can’t get health. If we could just capture it and say, ‘Hey this happens all the time with people of color because of racism,’ then I think we can open the door to a different conversation about the racial impact of covid-19.