Notes on Race during COVID-19

[Priya Gupta] Monday, April 20, 2020

Manifest Disparities told through Figures; or, death by the numbers.

In Louisiana, the state with the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases (nearly 25,000 confirmed cases as of April 20, 2020), 70% of the deaths are African Americans. African Americans are 33% of Louisiana’s population. The Morial Convention Center in New Orleans has been turned into a treatment center for patients with mild symptoms. You might remember that the Convention center was where people were sent after Superdome was hellishly overcrowded during Hurricane Katrina.

In Chicago, nearly 70% of the deaths have been African Americans. African Americans account for 30% of Chicago’s population.

In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in similar deathlogic statistical form: African Americans are 73% of the dead, 28% of the population.

In Michigan, 40% of the deaths have been African Americans, who are 14 percent of the population. More than 80% of the state’s cases are in Detroit, whose population is 79% African American.

Queens, New York, one of the most racially diverse counties in the America, is also the area in the U.S. hardest hit by the virus.

In St. Louis, as of April 8, 2020, all 12 deaths had been African Americans.

In the United Kingdom, Black and Asian people (collectively referred to under the category of “BAME” – Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) are disproportionately represented amongst the critically ill COVID patients in hospitals: 35% of the critically ill; 13% of the population

Meanwhile, in Canada, the government announced on April 10, 2020 that “Race-based coronavirus data [is] not needed in Canada yet” despite growing concern of the impact of COVID-19 on racially diverse and First Nation communities.

People in prisons and immigration detention centers are highly susceptible to contagion. There are already reports of COVID contractions and inadequate prevention and treatment measures. The strikingly rapid contagion in Rikers Prison in New York is worth noting here.  


Leilani Jordan, a 27 year old who wanted to keep working in the grocery store so that she could “help people” contracted the virus and passed away.

Burnell Cotlon, a grocer in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, has been allowing customers to buy on credit:

I took out a notebook that I usually keep near the register and started a little tab.

That notebook kept coming back out. Next it was Ms. Richmond. She did housekeeping at a hotel and lost that. Her tab was $48. Then it was a lady who shucks oysters downtown. She’s got a big family to take care of, so she’s at $155. . . And what am I supposed to say? I don’t blame any of these people. I like them. Some of these customers, I love. I truly do. They’re getting by however they can. It’s not their fault. It’s not like they’re asking me for handouts on gin or beer. I don’t sell alcohol. I won’t give loans on cigarettes. What they need is milk, cheese, canned goods, bread, toilet paper, bleach, baby wipes . . .”

“I’ve got 62 tabs in the book now. From zero to 62 in less than a month.”

Ellis Marsalis has died of COVID-19 complications in New Orleans. A lifelong musician and educator, he was the father of Branford and Wynton Marsalis. Here’s some music for us all:


Certainly, the virus has made the consequences of structural racism and inequality even more stark. That race, geography, education, work opportunities, and health are hugely interdependent appears to be increasingly accepted in mainstream reports of populations most affected by the virus.

What is meant by ‘structural racism’ and ‘structural racial inequality’? We start our class on “Critical Race Theory” by acknowledging that these are key questions for the rest of the semester. The assumption is that once students “get” this, they will understand a primary theme in critical race theory. They of course already get it. They’ve lived it. The scholarly literature just helps them articulate it more clearly. Before this, as they’ve said, it was more difficult to argue with precision against the idea that there exists in the U.S. an imperfect, but more or less acceptable, liberal political system with historical and individual instantiations of mistreatment, discrimination, and bias. After we study the structural nature of racial inequality through the literature, there’s . . . a collective deep exhalation in the room. There are words already written to delineate and articulate what they, the students, have been saying for years. 

 “Structural racism shifts our attention from the single, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and interactions. Efforts to identify causation at a particular moment of decision within a specific domain understate the cumulative impact of discrimination. A labor economist’s analysis of labor market discrimination controlling for background characteristics and educational preparation of workers ignores prior discrimination in education, housing, and health markets. Yet, racialized outcomes may be the product of cumulative effects of discrimination “over time and across domains.” For example, housing discrimination constrains many Black and Hispanic youth to attend high-poverty schools. Children in these schools are much less likely than their affluent peers to attend college, and are more likely to drop out of school or complete their education in a correctional facility. All three outcomes reduce the labor market options these young adults are likely to have, with grave implications for their chances to secure health and retirement benefits.

john a. powell (internal citations omitted)

A few years ago a student told us the story of her grandfather who had always told her how smart and capable she was. He was enormously proud of her studying law. He had held what we might call an “essential” job in our new CovidLanguage and had been “grateful” that he had had a steady job where he could provide for his family, despite his dreams, plans, and various attempts of other kinds of work. “And meanwhile,” my student said, “he got hosed, and he and his generation doesn’t even fully realize it. Looking back on their lives, they think it was just how ‘it worked out’ for each of them – that this didn’t work out, or that something else didn’t work out. That they could never get further, career-wise. But it wasn’t that it just ‘didn’t work out.’ It’s not that we’re smarter than them.”

Building those structures in the 21st C., one austerity measure at a time

“In the midst of this surging pandemic, the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, a Democrat, recently announced a round of budget cuts and reduced services, saying, “It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be pleasant . . . but, at the end of it, we need a balanced budget.” Philadelphia is the poorest of the large American cities where African-Americans are suffering the most from the COVID-19 outbreak. And, at just the moment when many are highlighting the ways that inequality and our poor civic infrastructure are failing the public—especially the black public—the mayor has announced “unpleasant” budget cuts.

It’s not just Philadelphia. For decades, across the country, cities large and small have been committed to a development model that prioritizes attracting private corporations with promises of tax relief while neglecting to invest heavily in public institutions. Instead, public hospitals have been closed, public housing has been detonated or left in disrepair, public schools have been starved of investment, and public health clinics have been shuttered. Even as the horrifying consequences of these political choices during the COVID-19 epidemic appear in news stories across the country, elected officials have no meaningful plans to change course.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in The New Yorker (April 16, 2020)

Oppressions of everyday life

Another way of appreciating structural racism and structural inequality is to locate it in moments of everyday life. Here is a quote from Iris Marion Young that we read during the first class of the semester.

In its new usage, “oppression” designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society. In this new left usage, the tyranny of a ruling group over another as in South Africa, must certainly be called oppressive. But oppression also refers to systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules. It names, as Marilyn Frye puts it, “an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people” (Frye, 1983a, p. 11). In this extended structural sense oppression refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms—in short the normal processes of everyday life. We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political, and cultural institutions.”

Iris Marion Young

Once the door is open to discuss “unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms,” we can really talk. We revisit Margaret Montoya’s experience as a Latina law student in her criminal law class, trying to understand the position of the teenage mother-defendant, despairing that neither her classmates nor her professor seems to ask any of the relevant questions. We can examine incidents in the everyday lives of the students in the room whose classmates seem still to not always ‘get’ it. In (zoom) class last week, we revisited this quote and asked ourselves which assumptions, stereotypes, and structural features have been revealed by the pandemic. Here are just a few examples and the patterns that they recall:

Assumptions & Stereotypes. The US Surgeon General (who, one might note, is black) appealed to people of color to abide by social distancing measures:

“Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. And call your friends and family. Check in on your mother; she wants to hear from you right now. And speaking of mothers, we need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you to understand — especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.”

The assumption there being that people of color won’t take proper precautions or that they haven’t already been ‘stepping up’ or that they need to be told to avoid alcohol, etc. The deeper assumptions being that this is primarily a question of individual choice rather than underlying (social, economic, political) conditions and government (non)response; that people of color have choices in how far they have to travel for food and in whether they have to work as “essential workers”; and that people of color have a way of paying for their mortgages or rent and expenses if they are staying at home.

A single manifestation of structural features of international political economy. In early April, 20 ventilators on their way from the U.S. to Barbados were stopped by the U.S. government.

Structural features told through history. One way of telling Detroit’s story of COVID-19 through a history of structural racial inequality might be: slavery to migration to Jim Crow to segregation to redlining to white flight to municipal (and tax) borders between (black) city & (white) suburb, to education funding and housing to city resources to now.

Patterns as Structures.

 “Racism never disappears but adapts to new circumstances when old strains rise from the dark vaults of American history.”

Cathy Park Hong   

Drug testing, Healthcare

A potential coronavirus drug will be tested in Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System. Recall Detroit’s black population and the death rate noted above. For many, drug experimentation on black people recalls the 1932-1972 (yes, forty year) Tuskegee Study where black men who were infected with syphilis were purposely not provided any treatment by researchers who wanted to study how the disease progresses. (Perhaps not as well known: from 1946 to 1948, a U.S.-sponsored drug experiment in Guatemala purposely infected nearly 700 men and women—prisoners, soldiers, mental patients— with syphilis, without their knowledge or consent.) in a new tab)

The distrust that racial minorities, in particular African Americans, have of medical institutions in the U.S. can be traced in part back to this history of involuntary drug testing. As a student of mine said last week, that distrust also comes from knowing that one is less likely to receive adequate healthcare treatment, that medical professionals treat black patients worse than white patients, that one is more likely be turned away from hospitals and medical care, and that not everyone has health insurance. To that list, one can add the racial bias embedded in healthcare algorithms: what treatment one receives is increasingly algorithmically determined by factors such as how much one has already spent in the healthcare system, creating a self-fulfilling loop of under-treatment as black people (who annually spend on average $1800 less than white people) are assumed by the algorithm to be more healthy.

Earlier this month, two French doctors – one of whom is the research director at France’s national health institute – suggested on a national television program that new coronavirus treatments should be tested in “Africa”.

Asian Americans & the enduring virus metaphor

Cathy Park Hong has a new essay in the New York Times Magazine where she places current anti-Asian American racism in the historical context of anti-Asian sentiment in 20th Century America. She reminds us of the Chinese Exclusion Act and of the regulation of Chinese-run laundromats in San Francisco; she draws our attention to the association of Chinese immigrants with disease and a lack of hygiene and to the enduring metaphorical likening of Asian people to infection. In her words,  

We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”

Her essay takes us to the ways of seeing & understanding daily life learned during her own coming of age. She, like so many other children and grandchildren of Asian immigrants, grew up in the U.S. during a time of the denial of racism directed at the ‘model minority’:

 I never would have thought that the word “[Ch*nk]” would have a resurgence in 2020. The word was supposed to be as outdated as those sinister little Chinamen saltshakers I saw in thrift shops. It still thrived among bottom feeders on the internet, but I hadn’t heard it directed at me since I was in my 20s. But now I was encountering that word every time I read about an anti-Asian incident or hearing about its use from friends. I couldn’t process the fact that Americans were hurling that slur at us so openly and with such raw hate. In the past, I had a habit of minimizing anti-Asian racism because it had been drilled into me early on that racism against Asians didn’t exist. Anytime that I raised concerns about a racial comment, I was told that it wasn’t racial. Anytime I brought up an anti-Asian incident, a white person interjected that it was a distraction from the more important issue (and there was always a more important issue). I’ve been conditioned to think my second-class citizenry was low on the scale of oppression and therefore not worth bringing up even though every single Asian-American I know has stories of being emasculated, fetishized, humiliated, underpaid, fired or demoted because of our racial identities.”  

For an example of the pervasiveness of anti-Asian rhetoric, see Joe Biden’s new ad:


In the early 1900s, when black families moved into predominantly white neighborhoods in Baltimore, white neighbors came by and broke windows, damaged properties, tarred the steps, and attacked the black families in those homes.

In 1925, an angry mob assembled at the home of the Sweet family in Detroit. Ossian Sweet, a grandson of a slave, was a black physician who had moved with his family to a white neighborhood. The mob threw stones at the house and broke its windows. Shots rang out and one of the people in the mob was killed, leading to the trial of Ossian Sweet.

In the late 1950s, an angry mob of around one thousand people assembled at the house of a black family who had moved into an Italian neighborhood in Chicago, throwing stones and breaking windows. The next night, 200 teenagers would assemble at the same house, chanting “We want blood.”

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry brought the precarity and violence of racial segregation and integration to life in her play, A Raisin in the Sun.

In the 1980s, a federal judge ruled that the city of Yonkers, New York had deliberately instituted and maintained policies of housing and educational segregation for decades, and ordered that the city take steps to integrate its population. Black families moved into white neighborhoods, and white residents fought the integration vehemently.

Around the same time as the Federal Court in New York must have been hearing oral arguments, Chinua Achebe received a letter from high school student in Yonkers who had just read Things Fall Apart and was “happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.” Achebe noted: “The young fellow from Yonkers, perhaps partly on account of his age but I believe also for much deeper and more serious reasons, is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things.”

An interview with a white resident in Yonkers in 1998 noted the continuing “muted bitterness and resignation” with racial integration:

““We’re living with it,” she says. “They’re a separate entity, though, they are not part of our neighborhood. There is no interchange. There’s no coming to my house for tea, or me going to your little abode for a cup of coffee. They’re on their own.””

In late March 2020, an Asian American couple in Minnesota received a note on their door:

We’re watching you f—— c—– take the chinese virus back to china. We don’t want you hear infecting us with your diseases!!!!!!!!!!

– Your friendly neighborhood


Eliza Griswold writes in The New Yorker about the Catholic Worker Free Clinic’s efforts to serve the homeless in Philadelphia.

Good Kids, Mad City, a youth of color activist group that does anti-gun advocacy in Chicago, organized itself rather quickly to provide a variety of aid to communities around them, from food to cash. Check out their twitter page for more:

A Milwaukee neighborhood has been organizing a variety of support for its community.

There is a GoFundMe page set up for Burnell Cotlon’s Market in New Orleans. As of April 20, it has raised nearly $300,000.  

Priya Gupta | Los Angeles | April 20, 2020

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