As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, its toll on African Americans is coming into sharper focus. In almost every setting, African Americans are contracting the virus—and dying from it—at startlingly disproportionate rates. In Milwaukee County, African Americans account for 27 percent of the population and over half of all COVID-19 cases. In Illinois, African Americans account for 15 percent of the population, 33 percent of COVID-19 cases, and 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In Georgia, African Americans account for 37 percent of the population and 62 percent of COVID deaths. Starkest of all, in the city of St. Louis, African Americans account for 47 percent of the population, almost three quarters of COVID-19 cases, and it appears almost everyone who has died of the virus has been black.
How do we account for this damage, for what New York Times columnist Charles Blow aptly dubbed the racial time bomb at the heart of the COVID-19 crisis? The answer to that question has deep and tangled historical roots. It is a story not just of discrimination, but of systematic exploitation, exclusion, subordination, and predation. The ability to live a long and healthy life is predicated on access to a range of social and economic resources systematically denied African American families and communities. In St. Louis, as elsewhere, African American workers are overrepresented among frontline service workers, among whom low wages are the rule and the luxury of social distancing is not. In order to get to work, or even to shop at a grocery store, many must spend hours on public transportation. Because health care in our society is generally allocated according to employment, it is least accessible to those who need it the most. In St. Louis, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured. Without economic security or options, and without adequate protection on the job, these workers—and their communities—have been delivered to disease by their history—by U.S. history.
The slow violence that we see unfolding in St. Louis has been structured into the fabric of the city, built brick-by-brick by those who have sought profit in segregation and comfort in social distance. Its racialized patterns of disadvantage are the result of decades of conscious choices by actors at every level of government, aided and abetted by private industries like banking, insurance, and real estate, to name but a few. St. Louis’s history of imposed black deprevation is both unique to it and reflective of the broader patterns that have made COVID-19 a charnel house for black Americans nationwide.