If you’ve ever play hide and seek with your young child, you have had this experience. After closing your eyes and giving them time to hide, you open your eyes and turn to see them attempting to hide but in plain sight. Perhaps they are behind a chair or a curtain. They believe that because they cannot see you, they are hidden. Of course, what we all do as parents, is pretend we cannot see them. We look all around, ignoring what we see, so the game has a chance to play out. This is what America has done relative to racial economic inequities and their root cause, racism; but this is no game
Our country has done this since the first slave ship landed in 1619. Although slavery was forbidden by the pope in 1537, slavery was still legal in America—treating black humans as property—longer than other countries which had made it illegal. America pretended not to see the inequity even though the U.S. Constitution declared that “all men are created equal”. This practice of not “seeing” what is clearly obvious, continued in new forms as each decade turned and showed itself more clearly during recessions, financial crises, and even natural disasters.
In early April, as the first racial demographics were reported on infection and death rates from COVID-19, the inequities of our country were immediately revealed again. While many had discussed the virus and that as an equalizer it would share its misery across all demographics and sectors, it became quickly known as the “Great Revealer”. The inequities amplified during slavery and bred through decades and centuries of overt and systemic racism—which had never truly been hidden—are now showing themselves once again.
The racial economic inequities did not need revealing any more than the child hiding in the curtains, both are in plain sight. The question we must ask is how will our government, businesses, communities, and individuals react differently this time? The financial crisis decimated urban communities, Hurricane Katrina completely changed the culture and population of black New Orleans, “tough on crime” laws led to mass incarceration of Black and Latino men, Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, and the list goes on. After any seismic shift puts a spotlight on the racial disparities of White and Black (or Brown) America, we begin the process of reaction, blame shifting, or misguided social policy until we eventually revert back to pretending we don’t see it, or worse, assigning the fault to the victims’ behavior.
The fact that Blacks and Latinos were being infected at three times the rate of whites was initially thought to be their fault for discounting public health orders such as social distancing and wearing a mask. Pre-existing conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease are also more prevalent in black and brown communities. It is clear from the protests around the country and the crowded beaches on both coasts that many whites are not following instructions either.
Blacks and Latinos—who are in the bottom fifth of all wage earners—are more likely to hold essential jobs or jobs which cannot be done from home. They are also more likely to use public transportation in urban environments traveling to and from work. Social distancing at food processing plants, grocery stores, distribution and packing facilities and other lower wage essential occupations is less likely and fraught with more risk. In Ohio, over 20% of infections were in prisons where the majority population is Black and Latino.
Closer examination by economists like Erik Hurst at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business points out that job losses between early March and Mid-April among the top fifth of wage earners was 9%. The bottom fifth—more likely to be Black and Latino—lost 35%. It’s even worse when it comes to the business impact. A recent Washington Post article citing a study by Robert Fairle, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, indicates that the number of Black business owners fell 40%, far more than other groups amid coronavirus. Latino businesses fell 32%. Fairlie calls the results of his study “devastating”. The study points out that part of the answer, as seen in the job losses above, lies in the industries most prevalent in these two communities: salons, daycare, and taxi operators. It also indicates that the industry isn’t the sole culprit. He points out the businesses exist in communities hardest hit by the virus which creates a fear. This fear puts even further dampening on demand and these businesses often have a very thin cushion which makes surviving a three-month shut down or loss of demand impossible. The data has also shown that the Federal disaster loans and Paycheck Protection Program funding did not find its way to these businesses.
There is much more to uncover regarding the revelation of inequity by COVID-19, but we won’t have to look very hard to find the systemic inequities of our past in every case; it will be tied to the devastating results of the present. Here are just a few recommendations:
- Eliminate race neutral assistance.Both history and current data show that negative impacts are not race neutral. Financial assistance should be targeted to Black and Brown communities.
- Businesses that are strong enough to do so should expedite receivable payments to small businesses in general, specifically Black and Brown businesses. and expand opportunities where possible.Driving growth in Black and Brown businesses will have a multiplier impact on regional employment.
- Provide funding to community-facing organizations as they often lead initiatives and offer assistance most effectively.
- Consider revamping Opportunity Zones funding for racial and social impact at the federal level. Reexamine the impact of the Community Reinvestment Act. Discontinue counting the quantity of investment and begin counting the quality of impact on racial and social inequities.
America through its policies is being called upon once again to recognize and fully address the imperfection of our union. Until we do so, we will continue to uncover that which has never been very well hidden; furthermore, our cities, regions and country will never prosper in a way that is equitable for all races.