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The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Intensified Systemic Economic Racism Against Black Americans – The New Yorker

The last day that Nicole Smith worked at her twelve-dollar-an-hour job as an after-school teacher in Smyrna, Georgia, was March 13th. A month later, her husband, Reggie, was furloughed from his job installing hardware and software for an I.T. company. For three months Reggie had no paycheck, but this week his firm asked him to return to work. Nicole doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to her job. With little savings, this African-American couple has struggled to stay current on their rent and avoid having their ten-year-old Dodge Charger repossessed. Smith spent hours on the phone getting Capital One to accept her car payment two weeks late, although she agonized over what it would do to her family’s credit score. “It was all unnaturally unnerving,” she told me.

Smith, who is fifty years old, said that she and her husband have not received the federal government’s promised twelve-hundred-dollar-per-person stimulus check, nor the five-hundred-dollar check for her sixteen-year-old daughter, Kayla. It took Smith two months to begin receiving unemployment benefits from the state—a mere a hundred and thirty-five dollars a week. Her husband received three hundred dollars a week in jobless benefits, less than half his typical pay. Reggie and Kayla both have asthma, making them vulnerable to COVID-19. In addition to worrying about their health, Smith was also shaken by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, in southeast Georgia, in March—she joined a march for justice on his behalf.

What has kept the family above water is the six-hundred-dollar-a-week unemployment supplement passed this spring by Congress. Even with that, Smith said, “We’ve been playing catch-up on the most important bills.” For months, she voiced fears that she and her husband would fall permanently behind financially if Congress either failed to renew or slashed the unemployment supplement, which is set to expire tomorrow. Senate Republicans have proposed cutting the payment to two hundred dollars a week.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted America’s enduring racial disparities, which are fuelled by decades of unequal treatment, unequal opportunity, and structural barriers like job discrimination and poor schools. Blacks have been infected with COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites, and their death rate is twice that of whites. (The same is true for Hispanics.) The coronavirus is also having a hugely disparate impact on Black people’s finances and prospects. For myriad reasons, Black Americans will have a harder time rebounding economically from the pandemic, and the fact that they began this period far behind whites in average income, wealth, and home-ownership rates will only make it more difficult. On average, Black workers earn just seventy-three per cent of what white workers do, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, which also found that Black college graduates earn 22.5 per cent less than white college graduates. Median household income for white households was seventy per cent higher than for Black households in 2018, $70,642 versus $41,692. As a result of these disparities, Black people will be evicted disproportionately from their homes, a process that is expected to accelerate following the July 24th expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions from buildings or homes with a government-backed mortgage. (The moratorium might be extended as part of the latest emergency-relief bill that Congress is debating.)

“There is a devaluation of Black people in virtually every domain in our society,” Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, told me. “There is an economic return to one’s identity, and a Black identity has a lower return than a white identity.”

The higher COVID-19 death rate for Black people is often blamed on preëxisting health conditions, but that’s only part of the story. Blacks have asthma at a rate of 9.2 per cent, compared with eight per cent of whites; 16.8 per cent of Blacks have diabetes, compared with ten per cent of whites (Reggie Smith has diabetes); 40.3 per cent have hypertension compared with 27.8 per cent of whites. Moreover, Blacks are sixty per cent more likely not to have health insurance, making it harder for them to get treatment for COVID-19 and other illnesses: 12.3 per cent of Blacks are uninsured, compared with 7.5 per cent of whites.

“The issue of preëxisting conditions doesn’t just happen,” Hamilton said. “There’s a whole political economy that’s made Blacks more vulnerable to having preëxisting conditions.” He cited such factors as lack of medical coverage, poor living conditions, and environmental degradation. Another factor is that Black people disproportionately live in apartment complexes (where it is easier for the virus to spread), rather than single-family homes. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, twenty-nine per cent of Blacks live in buildings with five or more units, which is twice the rate for whites; fifty-four per cent of Blacks live in single-unit dwellings, compared with seventy-four per cent of whites.

Additionally, a disproportionate percentage of Black people hold jobs that make them essential workers. Blacks represent 11.9 per cent of the total workforce, but they make up 14.2 per cent of the workforce at grocery, convenience, and drug stores; twenty-six per cent in public transit; 18.2 per cent in trucking, warehouse, and mail service; 17.5 per cent in health care; and 19.3 per cent in child care and social services. Essential workers often say that they are not adequately protected. In April, Maya Smith, an African-American cashier at a Walmart in New Orleans, told New Orleans Public Radio that her boss didn’t allow workers to wear masks, because some shoppers thought it meant the workers were infected, and Jennifer Suggs, an African-American Walmart cashier in South Carolina, said, “We’re not essential. We’re sacrificial. I will be replaced if I die from this. I don’t have a mask or gloves. The only thing I have is a stupid blue vest.” African-Americans also face a higher likelihood of being infected by the coronavirus, because a lower percentage of them can work from home—19.7 per cent of Blacks, compared with 29.9per cent of whites (and 16.2 per cent of Hispanics).

“Either you lose your job, or you stay on a job where you have much greater probability of being subjected to the disease,” William A. Darity, Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University, told me. “If Black folks had a higher level of wealth, they would have had a greater opportunity to exit from these jobs in which they were in jeopardy.”

A new book, “From Here to Equality, Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” which Darity co-authored with A. Kirsten Mullen, details the racial disparities in wealth and its causes. The authors write that while Black people make up thirteen per cent of the American population, they own just 2.5 per cent of the wealth. The median wealth of white households was $171,000 in 2016, ten times that of Black households. Darity and Mullen told me that the average net worth for white households is $933,000, but for Black households it is just $138,000. Black heads of households with a college degree, they point out, have two-thirds the median net worth of white heads of households who never finished high school.