The redlined, the underpaid, the uninsured: Black Americans in COVID-19 pandemic
Updated 18:32, 23-Apr-2020
By Wang Xiaonan

The novel coronavirus attacks all, regardless of race, gender, or nationality. But it's still "selective" in some places through disproportionately targeting the poor, vulnerable, and the underprivileged.

The situation is even starker in the U.S., the current epicenter of the pandemic, where the virus has shaken the communities of black Americans. Over the past few months, they've been infected and dying at higher rates than the national average. According to figures released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week, African Americans make up 30 percent of the country's confirmed coronavirus patients – much higher than the proportion of African Americans in the entire population, which stands at 13 percent.

In cities home to large African-American communities, numbers that entail subtle racial dynamics are alarming. By early April, in the Wisconsin county of Milwaukee – the most segregated place in the U.S. – they made up an alarming 81 percent of COVID-19 deaths even though they constituted only 26 percent of the population. In Chicago, the demographic made up approximately 60 percent of all deaths as of Monday, despite accounting for only 30 percent of the population. The proportions resemble those in the deep southern state of Louisiana.

Throughout history, black Americans have been disproportionately afflicted by pandemics, including the 1918 influenza, known as the "Spanish flu," and the H1N1 swine flu. Even after a century, their relative circumstances have barely improved. The coronavirus outbreak is just the latest disaster to amplify these racial disparities.

A carpenter works on a new home in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 5, 2013. /Reuters

A carpenter works on a new home in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 5, 2013. /Reuters

The redlined

One reason for these alarming rates come from a federal policy from the previous century. The concept of "redlining" emerged in the 1930s under the New Deal instituted by then U.S. president Roosevelt Franklin. To cope with a housing shortage after the Great Depression, the federal government set up the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) as part of the initiative. The HOLC initially provided color-coded maps that banks used in their consideration of mortgage loans. The safest, most "desirable" neighborhoods or communities where mostly white people lived were coded green while black neighborhoods were coded red. Banks took this color code into account when deciding whether to provide loans to individuals wanting to buy residential properties in an area, which meant that green zones had better prospects and generally tended to rise in value.

In his book Color of Law, U.S. historian Richard Rothstein noted that "a neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even if it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes." This led to banks denying loans to African Americans because property values of all-white neighborhoods "would fall if they had black neighbors," Rothstein wrote.

The adoption of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 failed to live up to the promise of eradicating segregation. Due to the legacy of racial discrimination, black residents were more prone to being denied mortgages from banks than their white counterparts. In addition, they couldn't own properties in desirable neighborhoods that rose in value, much of which they passed onto their children.

This fed into the cycle of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the homeownership rate of black families in 2019 remains similar to that in 1980: barely over 40 percent. And a majority of these house owners live in multigenerational homes, which makes social distancing next to impossible. The rest of black Americans have to rent condos in crowded, dilapidated and sanitation-poor neighborhoods.

An MTA worker wipes down a turnstile in the subway in New York City, New York, U.S., March 10, 2020. /Reuters

An MTA worker wipes down a turnstile in the subway in New York City, New York, U.S., March 10, 2020. /Reuters

The underpaid

Where African Americans lived for generations determined what education they could receive, what job they could get and what healthcare services they could access. Since a large number of black Americans work in essential low-wage jobs that require them to go into work, their conditions put them at a much higher risk of catching the virus.

Essential jobs offer much less salary – the average income of African Americans have, for half a century, been around 60 percent of their white counterparts. Even their wealth is relatively meager – less than 10 percent of those of white Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis in 2018 noted that blacks were more than twice as poor as whites.

People wait in line to receive testing during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Chicago. /Reuters

People wait in line to receive testing during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Chicago. /Reuters

The uninsured

African Americans as a group also have higher rates for diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, due to limited access to primary healthcare.

These chronic health problems associated with low socioeconomic status continue to plague African Americans, even though national and local programs have sought to remedy this disparity. Consider Medicare, a federal program established during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that provides health insurance to senior citizens as well as disability benefits. The program played a significant role in incentivizing integration in hospitals nationwide by withholding federal funding for hospitals that refused to cater to African Americans.

For more comprehensive coverage, a federal and state program called Medicaid gives health insurance to those with low income. This serves as an important form of medical coverage for African Americans, who tend to be poorer. But those who make slightly more than the threshold of poverty necessary to qualify — but not enough to pay for private health insurance — must impoverish themselves just to qualify for such health insurance.

(Cover image: A local resident waits for the bus as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., April 7, 2020. /Reuters)