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The Pandemic of Racial Inequality

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze
June 18, 2020

“African Americans are dying in great numbers.” “Blacks are dying disproportionally.” “The death rate amongst African-Americans are alarming.” “Coronavirus is ravishing the African American community.” Those were some of the narratives that emerged a few weeks after the onset of the COVID-19 disease in the United States. The nation expressed shock after initial data reported that African Americans were disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 disease. The outrage over the disproportional impact of COVID-19 has forced several public officials to speak out on racial inequality. Available data from New York City, which was the epi center of the COVID-19 disease in the United States, shows that amongst COVID-19 related deaths, about 92.3% (per 100,000 population) were African Americans, 74.3% were Hispanics, and 45.2% were Caucasian. The disproportional infection and death rates heightened the grim reality of racial inequality and foreshadow a tsunami of inequality that is inevitable if the public outcry is not accompanied by targeted policy actions to address the plight of African Americans.

If there are any lessons to learn from the devastation of this COVID-19 pandemic, it is the stark revelation that inequality has immediate grave consequences. To be clear, prior to the pandemic, African Americans faced historical systematic barriers in education, health, housing and employment. Then COVID-19 came like a storm with horrific devastation yet potently unmasked the magnitude of racial inequality that exists. African Americans are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to Caucasians and are, “Dying above their population share in more than 30 states.” According to APM Research Lab, the African American mortality rate has persistently been at least double the rates of all other groups, which reveals, “A durable pattern of disproportionality.” The latest published unemployment figures show that job numbers are improving for most races, excluding African Americans as the economy begins to rebound after a nationwide shut-down of economy activities due to COVID-19. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 3.2. million African Americans were unemployed in April and in May, and it increased to 3.3 million. Caucasian unemployment numbers show a downward pattern: 17.1 million in April and 15.1 million in May, while Asian unemployment increased slightly from 1.43 million in April to 1.49 million in May. As we digest the reports of wide racial disproportion, public officials have to spring into emergency action to avoid inflicting a “pandemic” of inequality on African Americans.

Immediate steps to take to pave the way for a solution:

  1. Plan and strategize: Governments must put plans in place to examine the extent of damage and map out strategies to address the situation. A genuine plan must have an inclusive process to examine the problem, evaluate the extent of damage and be transparent in the process of devising a solution. Inclusiveness in the process includes involving African Americans from the onset of the planning process. Public officials sometimes make policies that are not representative because they neglect to include the people who understand their need and have a better insight on how their problems can be solved.
  2. Data: Data, data, data! The value of data cannot be overemphasized. If we don’t have data to understand the extent of the problem, it is impossible to solve that problem. We must gather and analyze data on the disproportional damage of the pandemic to know who was affected, the extent of damage, the geographical differences etc.
  3. Tracking: Government and other employers must have tools in place to track the progress made. Without tracking, we can’t understand what progress we have made, or whether or not a particular intervention is working. The tracking of progress also entails being transparent and having the ability to admit when an intervention has failed and how to fix it.
  4. Sharing information and learning from best practices: No matter how accomplished an intervention may be, if it is not shared for others to learn from, the benefits become marginal. Most importantly, sharing allows us to improve because if we are transparent in sharing information, when we make mistakes we can be corrected and we can then learn from our mistakes. Sharing information on a program, plan or intervention does not make us vulnerable. Rather, the criticisms that we fear may occur help us to grow and learn better ways to improve the process. For instance, if an institution or employment shares information on their success in having a diverse workforce, it will help others learn from the process and also provide the opportunity for them to receive recommendations on how to improve.

While the nation is still reeling from the horrific devastation of COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic has presented an opportunity for the nation to pause and internalize the effects of the magnitude of racial inequality that has plagued the system for so long. It is important to clear any lingering misinformed conception that COVID-19 is a “black disease,” a strange illness African Americans are genetically susceptible to or that suddenly the pandemic created this massive racial inequality overnight. No, there is no data linking the black gene to the disease. The disproportional racial impact is a result of historical disadvantages African Americans face in health, education, housing and employment that must be addressed to achieve a more equitable society.


Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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