Systemic racism in focus amid George Floyd death and as black communities suffer disproportionately under COVID-19
  • Deadly coronavirus takes greater toll U.S. black households 
  • Black wages and employment were gaining before the virus began taking its toll and reversed the trend
  • Racial issues raised by pandemic and Floyd death may help policymakers prepare for next major crisis

The coronavirus pandemic and the death of a black man in police custody show that for the black community the American dream is falling farther out of reach. 

Both the George Floyd case and COVID-19 show “the devaluation and disposability of black lives,” Anne Price, President of Oakland, California’s Insight Center for Community Economic Development, said on a conference call hosted by the Economic Policy Institute this week. “Poverty itself is violence.”

The devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is massive, with more than 100,000 Americans dead, tens of millions unemployed and a countless amount of wealth lost.

Blacks have been hit especially hard, because their households tend to suffer from higher unemployment rates, lower wages and much less savings to fall back on, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute. Black Americans are also less likely to be able to work from home, either because of the nature of their jobs or for lack of Internet access, and are less likely to have paid sick days. And though blacks make up 12.5% of the U.S. population, they account for 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths, the report said, citing government figures.

“Black workers face two of the most lethal pre-existing conditions for coronavirus racism and economic inequality,” Valerie Wilson, director of the institute’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy, said on a webinar Monday discussing the report’s findings. As the country considers how to reopen the economy, policies that may seem to be race neutral will “play out differently for different people,” said Wilson, a co-author of the report.

Highlighting the disparate impacts of the pandemic on disadvantaged black communities may help policymakers and business leaders better prepare for the next major crisis. Otherwise, the risk is that people in the disadvantaged communities will be left worse off and fall even further behind.

Because of the pandemic, “people are having to reflect,” Erika Seth Davis, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, told Karma in an interview. For some people, “this is the first time they are learning about systemic racism,” she said.

The report details just how wide the racial divide is. The unemployment rate for blacks climbed to 16.7%, more than the 14.2% unemployment rate for whites. At every level of education blacks suffered a higher rate. Black wages and employment were gaining before the virus put the economy in a tailspin.

Also, blacks are more likely to risk exposure to COVID-19 because of their jobs: they make up 17% of those employed in front-line jobs such as grocery, public transport, trucking and the postal service. Moreover, only 19.7% of blacks had jobs they could do from home, compared to 29.9% of whites.

“The devastating effects of COVID-19 on the economic and physical well-being of black Americans were entirely predictable given persistent economic and health disparities,” according to the report.  

Julianne Malveaux, president and founder of Economic Education, said in the webinar that the country needs leadership that will look at the problems in a new way and that will have the courage to enact change. That’s why it’s important that everybody vote, she said.

Moving forward, policymakers should pay close attention to the concerns and needs of black women especially, since they tend to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, according to Rhonda Sharpe, founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race.

“When you create policies that focus on the most vulnerable, you get policies that lift everyone,” Sharpe said on the webinar.

Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, agreed with Sharpe.

“Centering blackness is a way to include everyone,” Bhattacharya said on the webinar

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images