Coronavirus has ‘unmasked’ face of racism, inequities in Houston and U.S.

The National Urban League’s 2020 State of Black America report, “Unmasked,” explores the various ways that that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the face of racism in America – particularly within our economy, our health care institutions, and our justice systems.

“Like an earthquake exposes the fault lines in the earth; the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fault lines in America’s social and economic institutions,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said. “The expansion of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which coincided with a decade-long economic expansion, partially masked the health care and economic disparities festering just beneath the surface. Now they are unmasked.”

The report includes a partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, which demonstrates that as states began to collect race-based data about the pandemic, a bleak picture emerged: Black, Latino and Indigenous people were getting sick and dying in higher numbers.

Among the findings: African Americans and Latinos are more than three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites, and African Americans are nearly twice as likely to die.  One reason the Black death rate from COVID-19 is higher than the Latino rate, even though Latinos are more likely to contract the infection, is because the Black population is older.

Furthermore, Black patients have tended to be far sicker when they finally receive treatment, partly because they are less likely to have health insurance, but also because of systemic racism in the health care system that downplays their symptoms.

The rage that erupted in response to the death of George Floyd and other police killings, was like a match dropped into a powder keg of grief, Morial said.

“Against the grim backdrop of an exploding public health crisis, the nation watched as a Black man was denied his God-given right to breathe, losing his life under a police officer’s knee pressed into the back of his neck for almost nine minutes, Morial said, noting that Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became emblematic of more than Floyd’s personal struggle in the moment. “Our reporting revealed the common denominator in the alarming and disproportionate ratio of Black people left gasping for air in emergency rooms and at the hands – and knees – of law enforcement: centuries of systemic racism.”

Among Morial’s “19 Lessons of COVID-19,” explored in detail in the report:

  • Leadership matters. Across the country, the actions—and inaction—of state and local leaders can be directly linked to the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
  • Essential workers, disproportionately people of color, are undervalued. Twenty percent of them live in poverty and more than 40% rely on public assistance. The nightly applause from New York City windows was inspiring, but it didn’t keep a roof over anyone’s head or food on the table.
  • Black communities never fully recovered from the Great Recession. Even at record lows, in recent years the Black unemployment rate consistently remained twice as high as the rate for whites, and the Black homeownership rate is now as low as it was before the Fair Housing Act.
  • Americans have enormous capacity for compassion. Amid the despair, acts of kindness shone through.

The 2020 Equality Index, a calculation of the social and economic status of African Americans relative to whites, is 73.8%.  Rooted in the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which counted enslaved African Americans as “three-fifths” of a person, the Index would be 100% under full equality. The 2020 Hispanic Index is 78.8%

Morial noted that, while the 2020 Equality Index does not capture the effects of the coronavirus pandemic or the resulting economic downturn that began in February 2020, it does reflect long-standing racial and ethnic disparities across nearly every area of American life than have been “unmasked” during these concurrent crises.

The categories that make up the Equality Index are economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement. Improvements in one category are sometimes offset by losses in another area, leaving the overall index little changed.

This year’s contributors of essays include:

  • Attorney Benjamin Crump
  • Criminal justice reform advocate and political commentator Van Jones
  • Dr. Lisa Cooper, Director of John Hopkins Center for Health Equity
  • Bret Schafer and David Levine of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy
  • Lawrence Norden and Gowri Ramachandran of the Brennan Center for Justice
  • A’shanti F. Gholar,  President of Emerge and Founder of the Brown Girls Guide to Politics
  • Dr. Kristen E. Broady, Dean, College of Business at Dillard University and Barron Hilton Endowed Professor of Financial Economics
  • Funke Aderonmu, Policy Analyst with the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security & Opportunity Initiative
  • Alexis McGill Johnson, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund
  • Linda Goler Blount, President & CEO, Black Women’s Health Imperative
  • Nia Eshu Martin-Robinson, Director of Black Leadership and Engagement, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

“The National Urban League stands united with all people committed to the monumental task of reckoning with our nation’s racist past—and present,” Morial said. “We stand resolute and ready to leverage our influence and resources to break the pattern of papering over injustice with hollow reforms and symbolic gestures. We believe that without real justice, there can be no peace.”