We know that Covid-19 is killing African-Americans at greater rates than any other group. You can see this most clearly in the South. In Louisiana, blacks account for 70 percent of the deaths but 33 percent of the population. In Alabama, they account for 44 percent of the deaths and 26 percent of the population. South Carolina and Georgia have yet to release information on death disparities, but in both states blacks are more likely to be infected than whites. The pattern exists in the North as well, where African-American populations in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee have high infection and death rates.
Federal officials have tied these disparities to individual behavior — the surgeon general of the United States, Jerome Adams, who is African-American, urged blacks and other communities of color to “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs” as if this was a particular problem for those groups. In truth, black susceptibility to infection and death in the coronavirus pandemic has everything to do with the racial character of inequality in the United States.
To give just a few, relevant examples, black Americans are more likely to work in service sector jobs, least likely to own a car and least likely to own their homes. They are therefore more likely to be in close contact with other people, from the ways they travel to the kinds of work they do to the conditions in which they live.
Today’s disparities of health flow directly from yesterday’s disparities of wealth and opportunity. That African-Americans are overrepresented in service-sector jobs reflects a history of racially segmented labor markets that kept them at the bottom of the economic ladder; that they are less likely to own their own homes reflects a history of stark housing discrimination, government-sanctioned and government-sponsored. If black Americans are more likely to suffer the comorbidities that make coronavirus more deadly, it’s because those ailments are tied to the segregation and concentrated poverty that still mark their communities.
What’s important to understand is that this racialized inequality isn’t a mistake — it isn’t a flaw in the system. It reflects something in the character of American capitalism itself, a deep logic that produces the same outcomes, again and again.
American capitalism did not emerge ex nihilo into the world. It grew out of existing social, political and economic arrangements, toppling some and incorporating others as it took shape in the second half of the 19th century.
White supremacy was one of those arrangements. The Civil War may have destroyed slave society, but the racial hierarchy that was central to that society survived the carnage and disruption of the conflict to shape the aftermath, especially in the absence of a sustained program to radically restructure the social and economic life of the South.
For the most part, before the war, blackness marked one as a slave. Afterward, it marked one as the lowest of laborers, relegated to sharecropping and domestic work, excluded from the mounting ranks of industrial labor. “With the coming of industry and the factory system, the social code which made manual labor a degrading factor was no longer of binding force,” the historian Charles H. Wesley wrote in his 1927 book “Negro Labor in the United States, 1850-1925.” “Work in the factories was honorable and it was to be considered the particular task of white workers.”
Which is to say that, as it developed in the United States, industrial capitalism retained a caste system with whites as the dominant social group. This wasn’t just a matter of prejudice. As it did under slavery, race under industrial capitalism structured one’s relationship to both production and personhood. Whiteness, the philosopher Charles W. Mills notes, underwrote “the division of labor and the allocation of resources, with correspondingly enhanced socioeconomic life chances for one’s white self and one’s white children.”
It’s not that life was particularly good for white workers, but that blacks faced additional challenges, from the denial of formal political rights to social exclusion and widespread, state-sanctioned violence. If they lived in cities, blacks were relegated to the least sanitary neighborhoods with the most substandard housing; if they had a skill or knew a craft, they were excluded from the guilds and unions that would have given them a path to employment; if they possessed a formal education, they were barred from most middle-class professions.
The overrepresentation of blacks in institutions like the Postal Service is a direct legacy of this exclusion. Postal work was, historically, one of the few stable jobs available to blacks. “For years the post office had commonly been considered a ‘safe’ job for blacks because of exclusion by both white capital and white labor in the private sector,” the historian Philip F. Rubio explains in “There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African-American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality.”
By the time we reach the New Deal era, the racial differentiation of capitalist inequality — divided labor markets, wide racial disparities in employment, income and education — was part of the pattern of American life, even in the midst of the Depression. And as policymakers in Washington worked to address the crisis, they built on that foundation and deepened those disparities, sometimes by accident, but often — because of direct pressure from the white South and its lawmakers — by design.
“By not including the occupations in which African- Americans worked, and by organizing racist patterns of administration, New Deal policies for Social Security, social welfare, and labor market programs restricted black prospects while providing positive economic reinforcement for the great majority of white citizens,” the historian Ira Katznelson writes in “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.”
Building on existing discrimination, federal policymakers further segregated Northern cities and created new geographies of disadvantage that separated black Americans from jobs and opportunity in the postwar boom. At the same time, policies like state-subsidized education, low-interest home loans and the interstate highway system helped turn a working class of ethnic Europeans into a middle class of whites.
Of course, my quick account of the history of racial inequality in America flattens a great deal of nuance. The mass of white workers may have been attached to what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “psychological wage” of racial entitlement, but it’s also true that racially divided labor suited the owners of capital, who took advantage of racism when it suited their interests. Despite this, the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th saw moments of interracial labor militancy and agrarian rebellion — glimpses of a different, more equal pathway for American life.
Aspects of the New Deal may have entrenched racial inequality, but African-Americans still made real economic and social gains under Franklin Roosevelt. That’s why, on the eve of the 1940 Democratic presidential convention, one black newspaper concluded that “Negroes have been given fairer and more impartial treatment by governmental agencies in recent years than ever before in the history of the Republic.”
There’s more: By midcentury the institutions of the labor movement had taken up the fight against Jim Crow racism, and in the wake of the civil rights movement, a black middle class did begin to take shape.
But if you look at the full picture of American society, it is clear that the structural position of black Americans isn’t so different from what it was at the advent of the industrial age. Race still shapes personhood; it still marks the boundaries of who belongs and who doesn’t; of which groups face the brunt of capitalist inequality (in all its forms) and which get some respite. Race, in other words, still answers the question of “who.” Who will live in crowded, segregated neighborhoods? Who will be exposed to lead-poisoned pipes and toxic waste? Who will live with polluted air and suffer disproportionately from maladies like asthma and heart disease? And when disease comes, who will be the first to succumb in large numbers?
If there was anything you could predict about this pandemic — anything you could be certain about once it reached America’s shores — it was that some communities would weather the storm while others would sink under the waves, and that the distribution of this suffering would have everything to do with patterns inscribed by the past.
As long as those patterns remain, there is no path to a better society. We have to break them, before they break us.