The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How America’s racial divisions have echoes in the coronavirus pandemic

White Americans who learned that non-Whites were disproportionately affected were found to express less concern about the virus

Jazzmaine Fortune, left, receives a coronavirus vaccine at a walk-in clinic hosted by the Black Doctors Consortium at Temple University's Liacouras Center on April 29, 2021. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)
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Less than a month after America began closing down to try to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, a pattern became obvious: Black people were being hospitalized and dying of covid-19 at higher rates than White people. States and cities began capturing and sharing data on the racial disparity, reinforcing the extent of the problem. Coverage of the divide on cable news surged in April 2020.

In June 2020, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking people why they believed this gap existed. As might be expected, there was a divide by race. While about 6 in 10 Whites, Blacks and Hispanics thought it was in part a function of Black Americans being more likely to live in (densely populated) cities, Black respondents were more likely to point to other factors as well: They were more likely to have other health conditions that put them at risk and to have less access to adequate health care. Black respondents were also more likely to cite that more Black Americans worked in jobs deemed essential — and therefore to be less able to avoid infection.

Then the vaccines were cleared for distribution. Again, Black Americans were less likely to indicate that they’d received shots than White Americans overall. In part, this was a function of availability: access to health care was again a challenge. By November 2021, though, research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that White and Black Americans had been vaccinated at similar rates.

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That finding obscures another divide that had been clear since the pandemic first emerged: Republicans were less likely than Democrats to either take preventive measures against infection and were less likely to get vaccinated. KFF’s polling, in fact, showed that Black Americans were significantly more likely to get vaccinated than White Republicans.

Since mid-2020, the areas of the country that have seen the most deaths per capita from the coronavirus were Republican ones. Once the vaccines had been broadly deployed and deaths from covid-19 were mostly among the unvaccinated, the racial differentiation also blurred. By April, the rate of deaths among White Americans and Black Americans over the course of the pandemic had drawn even.

This is misleading as a statistic, since the rate of deaths among Black Americans has remained higher once we control for age. Katelyn Jetelina, a doctor who writes about the pandemic, noted this important qualifier this month — though she also pointed out that the age-adjusted mortality gap had narrowed since the pandemic began, which seems safe to attribute in significant part to vaccine resistance that is often downstream from politics.

But, again, the political gap in deaths preceded the vaccine roll-out, because Republicans reported being less likely to avoid crowded places or to wear masks. This has prompted some theorizing that Republicans — a heavily White group — learned that non-Whites were being more negatively affected by the virus, which reinforced an indifference to avoiding it.

Research published last month suggests that there’s some truth to that idea. Among other things, the research team led by Allison L. Skinner-Dorkenoo of the University of Georgia found that “informing White U.S. residents of COVID-19 racial disparities can reduce fear, empathy, and support for COVID-19 safety precautions.” The researchers postulated that framing this divide as a systemic issue would moderate that effect, but it didn’t — “perhaps because this information signaled that these disparities were not just transitory epidemiological trends which could potentially shift and disproportionately impact White people in the future.”

In an email, Skinner-Dorkenoo noted that this held for both liberals and conservatives. The research didn’t evaluate if respondents then were less likely to actually employ preventive measures, though Skinner-Dorkenoo added that she believed “we can safely consider this a contributor” to such decisions. Given that President Donald Trump worked hard (and successfully) to inculcate a sense that the pandemic was fleeting and not particularly dangerous and that he derided mask-wearing, it’s likely that his efforts had more of an effect than coverage of the racial disparity.

Of course, Trump also made a different public association: He blamed the early death toll on Democratic-voting states. It was fair to do so, of course, since New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts had early outbreaks that drove media attention and led to most of the initial deaths from covid-19. But having the president of the United States downplay deaths in states that didn’t vote for him was not only tactless, it reinforced questions about the extent to which Trump’s initial effort to downplay the virus was a function of who was getting hammered by it. It might have been about Blue America more than Black America — though, of course, those Americans overlap.

By now, most Americans have moved the pandemic to the background. But not all Americans; recent research found that non-White Americans are more likely to report still wearing masks in public areas.