Hurricane Katrina was a defining moment for African Americans. In 2005, an inept and racially insensitive presidential administration transformed a natural disaster into a social catastrophe.
The coronavirus threatens to replicate that cataclysm.
Like hurricanes, viruses are not guided by racial preferences. But, like natural disasters, pandemics exacerbate existing racial and class disparities. Given President Donald Trump’s mismanagement, the virus that causes COVID-19 is posed to devastate the black population and aggravate the condition of darker peoples in the U.S.
Racial oppression operates on three scales: individual, structural or institutional, and cultural. Individual racism operates largely through microaggressions. These individual discriminatory behaviors take three forms: microassaults, the intentional use racial slurs or demeaning symbols; microinsults, rude and insensitive deprecation of a person’s heritage; and microinvalidations, which exclude or diminish a person’s lived experiences.
Structural racism functions through a society’s basic institutions. It shapes norms, rules, policies and laws in such a way that those institutions provide preference to members of the ruling race and discriminate against members of subordinate racial groups.
Cultural racism functions differently than either of the other two. It presumes the superiority of the dominant group’s culture. Cultural racism assumes that a civilization gap exists between the dominant and subordinate races.
Pandemics intensify extant inequalities. This logic includes differences among the racially oppressed as well as differences between oppressed racial groups and the ruling race. Thus, COVID-19 has generated distinct race-based responses to Asian and African Americans.
Anti-Asian, especially anti-Chinese, racism has swelled with the spread of COVID-19. Racial attacks on people of Asian descent have largely been microassaults and microinsults. Trump initially insisted on labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” and at least one member of his regime called it “kung flu.” He initially defended his and his unnamed staffer’s terminology.
Well before states issued social-distancing and stay-at-home orders, Chinese restaurants and Chinatown districts experienced stark reductions in customers and tourism. Hundreds of people of Asian descent have reported microassaults and microinsults. Public transit has been a particularly hostile place. In Washington D.C., a man told Allison Park to “Get out of here. Go back to China. I don’t want none of your swine flu here.”
Thirteen-year-old Sara Aalgaard reported that she and fellow Asian American students at her school in Middletown, Conn., are called “corona” and asked if they “eat dogs.” In response to these imminent threats, Asian social-justice organizations have mobilized resistance efforts.
However, anti-Asian racism has transcended microaggressions. Physical attacks against people of Asian descent have soared. According to Cynthia Choi, executive director of Asians for Affirmative Action, “Things are getting very physical, people throwing bottles, people who are pushing people into harm’s way.”
Anti-black racism is expressing itself differently. Whereas Asians are mainly experiencing microaggressions and physical assaults, black folk are being subjected to structural racism. Due to different racial formations or systems of oppression, African Americans are situated dissimilarly within the economy. According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau median-income data, Asian ethnic groups comprise five of the top 20 U.S. ethnic groups making between $74,000 to $110,026 a year. By contrast, African Americans’ median annual income is $40,528 or 92nd.
African Americans’ economic position explains much of their peculiar vulnerability to this pandemic. African Americans and Latinx people are predominately confined to the low-wage, no-benefit segment of the labor force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this means they are twice as likely, as their white co-workers — 8 percent to 4 percent — to make poverty-level wages.
It’s not surprising that only 27 percent of African Americans (and 23 percent of Latinx) who make less than $50,000 think they would be paid if they missed more than two weeks of work. Only 12 percent (19 for Latinx) think they’d be able to “keep up with basic expenses.”
The Economic Policy Institute recently updated its projection of the number of workers expected to be furloughed by the pandemic from 14 million to 19.8 million. Of the 29 percent of workers in the U.S. who are able to work from home, 90 percent are “higher-wage workers.” Only 31 percent of workers with wages in the bottom 10 percent receive paid sick leave. African Americans will likely comprise a disproportionate amount of laid-off workers. They will similarly make-up an unequal share of laborers who cannot work from home and who don’t have paid sick leave.
These structural racial economic vulnerabilities, combined with type of diseases African Americans tend to have and the negligent health care policies of Southern states, creates a perfect storm.
In Italy, more than 75 percent of the victims of the coronavirus suffer from high blood pressure. Some 35 percent have diabetes and 33 percent have heart disease. Heart disease and diabetes are the first and seventh causes of death among African Americans.
For the above reasons, 46 per-cent of African Americans (and 39 percent of Latinx people) perceive the coronavirus as “a major threat to their personal health,” compared with only 21 percent of whites.
It certainly looks that way. The preliminary data from Milwaukee County in Wisconsin confirms my worse suspicions. African Americans make up 26 percent of the county’s population but comprise half of its 945 cases and 81 percent of its 27 deaths. Data from Michigan also follows this trend. Black people make up 35 percent of cases and 40 percent of deaths, though they comprise only 14 percent of the state’s population. While the disease does not discriminate, U.S. society does. However, coronavirus reports from the Trump regime and many states do not include racial data. We need that data.
The pandemic has demonstrated the desperate need for universal health care, Medicare for all and the need for a national government plan for the financing and distribution of health care resources.