Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter?

Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter?

Coleman Hughes
Coleman Hughes
4 min read

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.

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