COVID-19, Health, Identity, Top Stories

Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter?

There is now a racial justice angle on the coronavirus pandemic. Ibram X. Kendi, Director of Antiracist Research at American University, led the charge in the Atlantic a week ago, calling for data on COVID-19 deaths broken down by race. Nikole Hannah-Jones (whose work Wilfred Reilly mentioned in this space back in February) followed up with a Twitter thread documenting the disparate impact the virus has had on black Americans. Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top immunologist, hit a similar theme in a recent press conference. To sum up the argument: Black people make up roughly 14 percent of the American population, but far more than 14 percent of Americans killed thus far by COVID-19.

According to one view, this racial disparity amounts to evidence of systemic racism. But the argument rests on the false presumption that, in the absence of racism, we would see equal health outcomes by race. The data suggest otherwise.

In fact, blacks are more likely than whites to die of many diseases—not just this one. In other cases, the reverse is true. According to CDC mortality data, whites are more likely than blacks to die of chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, liver disease, and eight different types of cancer. The same thinking that attributes the racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths to systemic racism against blacks could be applied equally to argue the existence of systemic racism against whites.

In some cases, there are obvious biological reasons for racial disparities in disease. Melanin content alone might explain the racial disparity in skin cancer, for example. But in other cases, the source of the disparity is mysterious. Why are whites more likely to die of Alzheimer’s? We don’t know. What’s important is that disparities between groups are not abnormal and are not, by themselves, a sign of any deeper societal malady.

A softer version of the above-described argument would concede that racial disparities in COVID-19 don’t prove anything by themselves—but would point to the various risk factors that nevertheless make black Americans more susceptible to COVID-19. Blacks are more likely to work in the service sector, for instance, which means they have more opportunities to contract the virus. Moreover, blacks are more likely to suffer from diabetes, asthma, obesity, and hypertension, all of which make the virus more deadly. Moreover, black Americans are less likely to have access to high-quality health care, and are more likely to live in areas that are served by over-burdened hospitals and emergency-response services.

But if we are going to discuss underlying risk factors, we should discuss them directly rather than immediately using race as a proxy. Focusing on age makes sense, because it has been obvious since early on that the elderly face a far higher COVID-19 case fatality rate. Focusing on people with pre-existing medical risk factors makes sense for the same reason. But absent some hitherto undiscovered genetic factor, focusing on race makes about as much sense as focusing on, say, religion. If anyone bothers to look, there will probably be disparities between Catholics and Protestants. Yet no one will feel the need to mention these at a press conference, and our public health efforts will not suffer as a result.

The fact is that our culture is obsessed with race. Part of this stems from a sincere desire to help the less fortunate, who are disproportionately black. But much of it stems from a deeply felt shame over the sins of history—slavery, Jim Crow, and all that followed. As a result, anything vaguely resembling a concern for black suffering is applauded—and no further questions are asked.

The House Democrats’ proposed coronavirus relief bill included a provision requiring that federal government agencies use as many minority-owned banks as possible, and another provision requiring corporations to maintain staff and budgets dedicated to “diversity and inclusion” for at least five years as a condition of receiving emergency funds. It is hard to see how either policy helps the less fortunate, much less why such non-urgent provisions are appropriate to include in a disaster relief bill.

On the sillier end of the coronavirus race obsession, CNN ran a story about black Americans who won’t wear masks because they fear being mistaken for criminals and killed by the police. A tweet from one black educator—“I want to stay alive, but I also want to stay alive”—received 124,000 likes.

Though the CNN article suggested that the fear was valid, it did not give even one example of a black person actually being harassed in this way, much less killed. Last year, 41 unarmed Americans were shot and killed by the police—nine of them black. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has been killing over 1,000 Americans per day. There is simply no comparison. Given how high the stakes are, the media should be disabusing people of life-threatening racial paranoia, not catering to it.

There are many lessons to take away from this pandemic, but the importance of race is not one of them. Italy, Spain, and France—all heavily white countries—have been among those hardest hit by the pandemic. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who possesses as much race and class privilege as anyone on Earth, has been hospitalized as a result of the virus. If there is a lesson to take away from COVID-19, it’s not that your racial identity matters, it is that ultimately all of humanity shares a common fate.


Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman.


  1. Another great article by Coleman Hughes! :slight_smile:

    I would like to point out another social injustice that has so far been overlooked by the liberal media and which goes beyond racism, namely the disparate impact of the virus on the sexes: The existence of a large gender mortality gap, since about seventy percent of deaths were men.

    If that is not a sign of the malignant effect of patriarchy, I don’t know what is.

  2. I suspect that ‘Ibram X. Kendi, Director of Antiracist Research at American University,’ is more likely to look at events through lenses tinted by his interests. Just as some will use feminist lenses, or conspiracy lenses, or bankers lenses.

    We should not be afraid to gently remonstrate with people who form partial views of reality.

  3. Anyone who uses the word “racist” without irony should be disbelieved as a matter of course. These bastards are making stuff up, be a they haven’t got the wit to do a real job.

    Can’t someone with some gumption go and horsewhip this Ibrahim tosser?

  4. Why should the WuFlu be different than every topic under the sun these days? It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that racist swing. And if there is no convenient black population? No problemo: we’ve got hispanics and natives and “asians” and alphabet soup to serve up for y’all. This fool’s fest never runs low on fodder!

    Coleman H., once again you are a sane voice in our modern bedlam

  5. The double standard here is absolutely massive. Somewhere between two thirds to thre quarters of deaths are men. Putting this another way you are two to three times more likely to die if you are male.
    If you believe that disparities in outcomes is strong evidence, or perhaps even proof of discrimination then you must believe this is evidence of discrimination against men. Has anyone anywhere suggested this? Has anyone suggested that men paticularily older men should be shielded compared to similar aged women? Again silence.
    What I have seen is a number of articles suggesting women are suffering more than men and need to be supported preferentially.

    It is enough to make you think that those who promote identity politics and feminism are hate filled irrational bigots seizing on anything to gain advantage and attack those they are prejudiced against.

  6. There are biological possibilities that exist that can account for some of the differences in people/groups being affected, all having to do with immune system functioning. There are genetic differences between all of us in terms of how well various cellular functions occur. We can all improve our situations as much as possible through good nutrition.

    One likely cause for the increase incidence of illness in darker skinned individuals is vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is crucial for proper functioning of the immune system. Typically we produce vitamin D in the skin in response to UVB radiation. Light skin (less melanin) is a genetic adaptation to northern climates where the winter sunshine is both inadequate in terms of overall daylight and the angle of incidence is too low in order to allow exposed skin to make vitamin D.

    Dark skin is protective against UVB but results in longer time required to make vitamin D. Unless people supplement sufficiently, particularly in the winter months, their vitamin D levels will be low, their immune system will suffer and they will be more likely to get sick from colds, “regular” influenza and Covid-19.

  7. One day at work, I stepped into the break room to microwave my lunch. Sitting at one of the tables was a group of four secretaries, each of them an obese black woman in her thirties or forties.

    They were describing their diabetes symptoms and comparing notes with each other as to first onset. They also referenced family members across a couple of generations and compared their diabetes symptoms.

    It was evident from their tone and their choices of words that all four of these women considered diabetes to be a right of passage for them. This is life. Diabetes happens. There’s nothing you can do about it.

    Obviously, that moment would not have been a good time for me, a white man, to begin a compassionate discussion with them about how they, a vulnerable population, could realistically mitigate their risk factors for disease and early death by losing weight.

    Their own personal doctors might do that, but good luck to anybody else who presumes to approach them first with an offer of compassionate discussion.

  8. This Ibram Kendi is quite a character. From his Atlantic article:

    “The virus might be ravaging Latinos in Florida and California, Native Americans in Oklahoma, or Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans in New York City at greater rates than others in those same states and cities—or white people could be disproportionately affected. But no one knows, because Americans don’t want to talk about race.” *

    Americans don’t want to talk about race? Americans are constantly talking about race. You can’t get Americans to shut up about it.

    (* Emphasis mine.)

  9. As the Left would say, Americans are not “having a conversation about race”.

    Where “conversation” means “they speak, we choke it down”.

  10. Woke person: “You’re not hearing me.”

    Me: “Yes, I am. I simply disagree with you.”

    Woke person: “No! You are not HEAR. ING. ME.”

  11. Basically all the things that are said to make black people more impacted by covid are also true of poor white US southerners. The average age of people dying from covid in the southeast is significantly lower than in the rest of the country, due to a greater incidence of risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, etc., as well as reduced access to high quality healthcare in rural areas. Yet no one talks about a need for any special efforts to be directed towards these communities. I agree with Coleman that the focus should be on the actual problems that make certain individuals at greater risk of succumbing to covid, like poverty, poor health, and lack of education relating to dangers and preventative measures, rather than on irrelevant variables that happen to correlate with these, like race.

  12. That’s why racism entrepreneurs like Kendi are so despicable. They perpetually cry wolf by insisting that anything and everything is about race, falsely claiming that all disparities are a consequence of racial discrimination. I don’t know whether people like Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehesi Coates, etc. actually believe the narrative that the U.S. has made zero progress since the days of Jim Crow – racism hasn’t declined, it’s just disguised itself and become more insidious – or if they know they’re peddling bullshit and cynically ride the wave of white-guilt acclaim to great success. Either way, their “anti-racist” crusade has undermined the very cause they claim to support. They alienate potential allies (conservatives, moderates and non-woke liberals) by branding them as racists and have made it virtually impossible to identify instances of actual racism.

    Moreover, the “all-pervasive-racism” worldview damages the psyche of young African Americans by encouraging them to be hyper-sensitive to supposed racial slights instead of becoming more resilient. The racism entrepreneurs are peddling a form of racial pessimism that portrays racism as being both inescapable and insurmountable. They seem more interested in virtue signaling and maintaining ideological purity than in addressing the root causes of problems. Why not focus their attention on the underlying conditions (poor health, lack of access to preventive care, etc.) that contribute to higher rates of COVID-19 deaths in a race-neutral way instead of sounding the race alarm and deepening political polarization? Perhaps because they don’t really care about improving the lives of the people they claim to represent. They’re more interested in advancing their activist agenda than solving real problems.

    A recent episode of Glenn Loury’s The Glenn Show has a worthwhile discussion about the racial disparity in COVID cases. It’s also available as a podcast, which I highly recommend.

  13. Great article. I want to highlight one piece of evidence I hope folks can reference when “systemic racism” is brought up in arguments. In particularly, I want to direct my ire to New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, which Coleman Hughes mentions in his intro.

    First, I’m going to point out that the Twitter description of Hannah-Jones is “Ida Bae Wells” and she calls herself “The Beyoncé of Journalism,” which pretty much highlights the kind of egocentric person she is. Not to mention, the kind of newspaper New York Times is today. What Coleman won’t say (too dignified and smart) is that she is so thin-skinned that she flashed a photo of herself and her gold grill (!) in a Tweet reply (now deleted) when he had the temerity to criticize her 1619 Project vis-a-vis the 1776 Project.

    Let’s just say she’s the kind of dishonest “journalist” who will talk about per capita outcomes of blacks dying of COVID-19 and on the SAME thread hypocritically ignore per capita outcomes and Tweet, “The majority of people on welfare are white.” Actually, black people are 3 times more likely to receive welfare. She’s really an activist. You’ve been warned.

    So this is her Tweet thread Coleman mentions, and it’s here I want to address a key reason people say health outcomes are worse in poor communities: Food deserts, disparities in healthcare, and segregation.

    You will see that her argument and many others focus on systemic causes in America’s unique “racial caste,” but brushes over the most important factors in dying from COVID-19: Underlying health conditions, particularly heart disease and diabetes.

    My response is on Twitter under Coleman’s post about his article, but I’ll post the gist below.

    Headline from the University of Chicago News: “Food deserts not to blame for growing nutrition gap between rich and poor, study finds”

    “91 percent of the nutrition gap is driven by difference in what shoppers prefer to buy, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.”

    “Households in food-desert zip codes buy almost 90 percent of their groceries from supermarkets.”

    Thus, in this one clear example, we can see behavior and culture dictate outcome. Not systemic racism.

    There are clear health disparities between blacks and whites. Some of them can be caused by bias in the system. But if you dig down on many of these arguments, you’ll almost always see one factor guiding outcomes above all others: Choice.

  14. McWhorter’s essay on the “religion” of Anti-Racism is one of my all-time favorites. I had the misfortune of attending an anti-racism workshop several years ago and McWhorter’s diagnosis is absolutely correct: anti-racist activists are committed to their beliefs with a religious zeal and condemn anyone who dissents as a heretic. At one point I suggested that one was better off being an African American in 2015 than in 1950 or in 1850. This obvious and incontrovertible truth was met with derisive laughter. I was accused of suffering from “white fragility” because I tried to apply logic and reason to the claims being made instead of accepting them blindly. At another conference, a scholar claimed that the expectation of punctuality (i.e., the requirement that students come to class on time) is an illegitimate expression of white privilege, because not all cultures perceive of time in the same regimented, Eurocentric way. You can’t make this stuff up! (Actually, you can, as the grievance studies hoax proved.)

  15. The organizers didn’t go quite that far, but they did force our group to segregate by race to engage in “racial caucusing” and recommended that we do the same in our classes. Whites were told to contemplate and confess all of the ways they benefit from white privilege while non-whites shared their stories of oppression in a racially safe space. One of the rationales: “A white caucus … puts the onus on white people to teach each other about these ideas, rather than constantly relying on people of color to teach them.” It’s a no-win situation: If we ask non-whites to share their experience of racism, we’re unfairly burdening them with emotional labor. If we don’t ask them, we’re marginalizing them and excluding them from the conversation, presuming to speak on their behalf. Either way, we’re racist.

    After this experience we were asked to share what we were feeling by means of interpretative dance. I shit you not. I declined to dance – I was afraid I might accidentally engage in cultural appropriation.

    I was fortunate in that I attended voluntarily. It was a six-day (!) workshop – on the seventh day we rested – but it happened during the summer outside of my normal duty days so I was paid to attend. It had the opposite of the intended effect, turning me against the “woke” approach to race and racism.

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