COVID-19: A Critical Crossroad for Racial Justice

We have reached another grim milestone in the United States: the pandemic has now claimed over 500,000 lives. In the first half of 2020, life expectancy decreased by a year overall, largely because of COVID, and the decrease in life expectancy is worse for Black Americans. For Black men, it dropped by three years, and for Black women, it dropped by 2.3 years. 

There is, however, hope on the horizon for an end to this pandemic now that the number of COVID cases is dropping and vaccine availability is increasing. We yearn to return to “normal,” but it was our status quo and our failure to learn from past mistakes that made us so susceptible to COVID in the first place. 

Will we learn our lesson this time?

In 1964, Ella Baker said, “in order to see where we are going, we not only must see where we have been, but we must also understand where we have been.” 

This is one of the quotes at the beginning of the introduction to From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, by William A. Darity, Jr., and A. Kirsten Mullen.

This book describes America’s long history of racial injustice and provides a plan for the country to pay its debt to the descendants of enslaved people. It is a well-researched and thought-provoking read, showing how time and time again, whenever our “nation stood at a critical crossroad with respect to its racial future, it chose the wrong fork.”

The Civil War ended slavery, but as Frederick Douglass said in 1875, “the four million slaves of the South… were free without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear.” 

The United States government never gave land or other assets–the promised forty acres and a mule–to the newly freed people. These assets would have allowed them to build and pass down wealth. Instead, after a brief period of Reconstruction, the white North reconciled with the white South, reinforcing and perpetuating white supremacy from the Jim Crow era to this day. 

As a result, as Darity and Mullen write, “Blacks continue to bear the weight of American racism… manifest in labor market discrimination, grossly attenuated wealth, confinement to neighborhoods with lower levels of amenities and safety, disproproprtionate exposure to inferior schooling, significantly greater danger in encounters with the police and the criminal justice system writ large, and a general social disdain for the value of black people’s lives.”

We have had antidiscrimination laws at federal, state, and local levels for a long time. These laws are unevenly enforced and contain loopholes, but in some cases, they provide redress for individuals who have experienced injustice within a short time of filing a complaint. They do not provide the type of systemic change we need to fix structural inequality.

The solution, according to Darity and Mullen, is reparations, which is a “program of acknowledgment, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice” that involves payments to people whose ancestors built this country and received nothing in return.

How much would it cost? Darity and Mullen describe different ways of calculating the cost. To eliminate the racial wealth gap, the cost is $10.7 trillion, payments of about $267,000 per eligible person from the government.

Who would be eligible? The authors propose two criteria: “First, US citizens would need to establish that they have had at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States after the formation of the republic. Second, they would have to prove that they self-identified as ‘black,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Afro-American,’ or ‘African American’ at least twelve years before the enactment of the reparations program or the establishment of a congressional or presidential commission, whichever comes first.”

This eligibility criteria excludes Black immigrants who are not descended from enslaved ancestors in the United States but who continue to experience the discriminatory effects of anti-black racism in this country. One reason the authors give for excluding this group is because of the voluntary nature of their immigration to the United States. Darity and Mullen write, “voluntary immigrants to the United States have chosen to migrate to a country with this national history,” essentially arguing that voluntary immigrants have assumed the risk of white supremacy. 

“Assumption of risk” is an unfair concept with a long history in tort cases involving injured workers. See Perez v. McConkey, 872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994). Courts have used it to deny injured people compensation when they exhibited even the slightest awareness of potential harm, which courts construed as a form of “consent” to be harmed, regardless of their minimal bargaining power in comparison to the tortfeasor and the tortfeasor’s superior knowledge of the dangers involved. This defense removes the focus away from the entities that caused the harm, which in the case for reparations, is the United States, and places it on people who might not have known the full extent of the risk, had no power to change the risk, and certainly deserved better treatment. No one consented to discrimination, making them less worthy of redress, simply because they migrated here.

A stronger argument for excluding more recent immigrants is that the debt America owes when we’re talking about reparations stems from the government’s denial of compensation at the time of emancipation. However, the second criterion the authors propose would remove from eligibility people who do not identify as Black today (so do not experience anti-Black racism) but who descend from enslaved people in America and were thus denied an opportunity for intergenerational wealth when their ancestors did not receive compensation. 

Overall, though, the authors make a compelling case for their plan with a focus on providing reparations to the people who are the most likely to suffer from our nation’s brutal past and present. A redistribution of wealth along these lines would ameliorate the effects of white supremacy, and in the pandemic, it would have saved lives.

The authors of From Here to Equality were among a group of researchers who released a study this month on the impact of racial-justice interventions, particularly Black reparations aimed at closing the racial wealth gap, on health disparities. They noted how structural inequalities placed Black Americans at a higher risk of COVID-19 by concentrating them in frontline work and crowded conditions where it would be challenging to practice prevention measures like social distancing.

To study this issue, these researchers compared COVID infection rates in South Korea, where there is more social equity, with Louisiana, where there is far less social equity, and they created a model to assess the impact of a reparations program. They found that “a reparative program targeted towards Black individuals would not only decrease COVID-19 risk for recipients of the wealth redistribution; the mitigating effects would be distributed across racial groups, benefitting the population at large.”

Eliminating the racial wealth gap would have helped everyone in society by reducing the transmission of COVID, averting deaths, and lessening the strain on our healthcare system and economy. 

As we look forward to a future after COVID, our nation faces another critical crossroad for racial justice. What fork will we choose?

6 comments

    1. Thank you! The US is in better hands now, at least on the federal level, but I doubt we’ll pursue the best options for racial justice. We still have so many people in this country who believe disinformation and hold on to a false view of history.

  1. Your point about collectively understanding history — a similar statement the other day smacked me in the face. I saw Isabel Wilkerson in a video lecture, and she talked about how in Germany they have monuments to the lives lost in the Holocaust. There aren’t even signs that explain what the monument is; everyone knows. In the U.S., we don’t even collectively agree on what our history with slavery is. We still have Confederate statues hanging around.

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