Many of today’s headlines tend to blame Black Americans for their vulnerability to the ravages of the COVID-19 virus. “They are dying at an alarmingly higher rate because they are obese, have diabetes/high blood pressure/asthma and other respiratory issues.” While all of those things are true, what is missing from this narrative is that our nation’s history of racism, redlining, displacement and health and wealth inequities created this perfect storm where Blacks and Native American people are exposed to, catching and dying from COVID-19 at much higher rates than other groups.
A long history of racial segregation and discrimination, hospital closures, food deserts, exposure to air pollution and toxic environments, poor and dangerous work conditions, and the abundance of liquor stores and fast food “restaurants” has created an environment where it is hard to survive much less thrive. Low-income families and people of color experience reduced access to health care and may face difficult choices when deciding whether to seek out medical services that put them in debt. Additionally, Black and Native peoples continue to experience bias by medical professionals in the research, screening, diagnosis and treatment of ailments and viruses that result in or exacerbates poor health conditions. Also, many Blacks are on the front line as our transit, sanitation, health care, postal and public service workers. They risk their lives every day they go to work as they do not have the luxury of working remotely from the safety of their homes.
While Latinos work in many of the same industries, their COVID-19 related death rates have been relatively low possibly due to a strong public awareness through Spanish media, a relatively young population or the numbers may be artificially low due to the lack of testing. And as Latinos also overwhelmingly lack access to adequate health care and experience toxic exposures due to poor working conditions or dangerous jobs and as their population ages and the long-term poor health conditions become more chronic, they may also face the same negative impacts of viruses like COVID-19 in the near future.
In March, almost 20,000 individuals and organizations submitted comments mostly in opposition to a HUD proposed rule that would effectively eliminate the federal mandate to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH). The AFFH rule was implemented by the previous administration to correct discriminatory housing practices and to address the lasting impacts of government and privately sponsored racial segregation. It mandates that cities and counties receiving federal funds must analyze their housing issues and come up with solutions that would promote access to safe and affordable housing for all including the most marginalized in our communities. The rule’s community participation provision ensures that government listen to local community members and address their concerns in a meaningful manner. Unfortunately, the current administration is dismantling the AFFH and downplaying the adverse impacts of racial segregation and disparities in our nation. Today’s Black communities are much more vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 and other diseases and adverse health conditions because of the impact of decades of racial segregation and government sponsored redlining that stripped or denied wealth, home ownership, housing stability, and access to good healthcare, safe job opportunities and education in predominantly Black communities.
The disparate impact theory that was upheld by the U.S Supreme Court in 2015 is also under attack by this current federal administration. The disparate impact theory is another important tool that has been used to fight discrimination and bad private and government decisions where a supposedly neutral policy or practice is correctly found to be illegal because it unfairly and adversely impacts one group more than another because of their personal characteristics (race, religion, disability, children, etc.). It requires housing providers and municipalities to eliminate policies and practices that disproportionately hurts certain people. And yet, the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on the Black and Native American communities could not be more alarming. Municipal decisions to close hospitals and schools and place toxic landfills and highways in certain communities have had a disparate impact on low-income and communities of color and made them highly vulnerable to the worse effects of the COVID-19 virus.
In addition, a recent study by the Human Rights Campaign found the LGBTQ community is uniquely vulnerable during the COVID-19 public health crisis as they are more likely to work jobs in the highly affected industries and lack access to adequate health care. And a final but important fair housing note: as Asian individuals, groups, and families have been unfairly targeted with anti-Asian racist attacks, we must ensure that reducing discrimination and stigma stemming from xenophobia and racism are part of our collective COVID-19 response.