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New data finds Black and Hispanic Americans more likely to take precautions against coronavirus

Sen. Thom Tillis is wrong about why Hispanics have higher rates of illness

A store sells face coverings in the largely Latino neighborhood of East Los Angeles. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In a recent telephone town hall with constituents, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said that Hispanics make up a high proportion of coronavirus cases in his state. He then attributed this disparity in cases to that group’s “less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”

The senator’s statement invokes widespread stereotypes that communities of color’s poorer health results from their own bad behavior. My research found no empirical evidence to support this assertion.

Are marginalized groups less likely to wear masks or practice social distancing?

To answer this question, I relied on weekly tracking surveys by the Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape, one of the largest public opinion surveys ever conducted. Each weekly Nationscape survey asks over 6,000 U.S adults a variety of questions, including some to gauge observance of public health measures for slowing the coronavirus’s spread.

Drawing on that data, the figure below shows that Black and Hispanic Americans are no less likely than Whites to follow coronavirus preventive measures.

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Respondents were asked whether they had worn a mask when going out in public in the past week. Overall, more than 9 in 10 respondents answered yes to this question. In fact, only in recent months has White Americans’ mask-wearing (91 percent) caught up to the high proportion among Black or Hispanic Americans (92 percent). These findings are in line with previous analysis by Gabriel Sanchez and Edward Vargas, published here at TMC, which found that in April, communities of color were more likely than White Americans to wear masks.

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White Americans report that they socialize more with others than do Black and Hispanic Americans — and are more likely to violate social distancing guidelines

The Nationscape survey has also been gauging Americans’ self-reported socialization habits during the pandemic. Respondents are asked whether they left the house for nonessential goods or services over the past week and whether they had socialized with people not living in their household — and if yes, whether they maintained the recommended social distance.

Overall, 54 percent of survey respondents said that they had left their house over the past week for nonessential goods or services. However, a breakdown of the numbers by race and ethnicity reveals some differences in reported activity. Almost 6 in 10 (59 percent) of White respondents said they had left their house for nonessential purposes, compared with only half (50 percent) of Black respondents and less than half (45 percent) of Hispanic respondents.

Close to two-thirds (65 percent) of all respondents said they socialized with individuals outside their household over the past week while maintaining social distance. White respondents were a bit more likely to say this was the case (67 percent), compared with Hispanic and Black respondents (62 percent).

When asked whether they socialized with others outside their household over the past week while not maintaining the recommended social distance, less than a third of all respondents (31 percent) said yes, but with differences across racial and ethnic lines. Only a quarter (25 percent) of Hispanic and Black respondents said they socialized without maintaining social distancing, while 34 percent of White respondents did.

Of course, these are self-reports; we cannot verify whether respondents are doing what they say they are doing. But these reported attitudes suggest that marginalized minorities in general, and Hispanics more specifically, are no less likely — in fact, they are more likely — to follow public health guidelines compared with other groups.

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So why are such groups disproportionately affected by the coronavirus?

As has been documented, the pandemic has hit Black and Hispanic Americans harder than White Americans for reasons growing from long-standing structural socioeconomic disparities among those groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both Black and Hispanic Americans suffer “inequities in the social determinants of health,” such as discrimination, limited health-care access, occupations with a higher risk of exposure, and poorer-quality and more crowded housing, making social distancing impossible to maintain at home.

Hispanics, in particular, are disproportionately employed in jobs deemed “essential” — such as front-line health care, grocery stores and delivery services, farm labor, housekeeping, and janitorial work — which puts them at higher risk of being exposed to and contracting the virus. Policymakers who want to reduce these higher rates of exposure may wish to address these well-documented underlying disparities.

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Stella M. Rouse (@Stella_Rouse) is associate professor and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, co-author most recently of “The Politics of Millennials: Political Beliefs and Policy Preferences of America’s Most Diverse Generation” (University of Michigan Press, 2018), and serves on the executive board of the Women Also Know Stuff initiative.