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Racism and COVID-19, Two Viruses That Threaten Black America

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Racism is stamped in America's DNA. America is still segregated, and so is pollution. I documented this pattern in a 1979 study and testified in Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp., the nation's first lawsuit to challenge environmental racism in Houston more than four decades ago. And after writing Dumping in Dixie in 1990 and more than a dozen books on a range of racial justice topics over the decades, this is the first time I have seen the convergence of so many lethal multiple threats bearing down on Black people. These threats are real and all have their roots in systemic racism.

Rollbacks of environmental protection, regulations and laws.

In three and a half years, the Trump administration has rolled back 100 environmental rules. Federal regulations are being dismantled that protect workers, consumers, and the environment. These rollbacks have been a gut-punch to Black Americans who are 79 percent more likely than Whites to live where industrial pollution poses the greatest health danger. Black households with incomes between $50,000 to $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than neighborhoods in which White households with incomes below $10,000 live. Black Americans are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate matter than whites. Harvard researchers found particulate matter air pollution linked to higher COVID-19 deaths.

Government efforts to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and restrict access to quality, affordable health care.

Over 11.5 percent of Black households compared to 7.5 percent of White households are uninsured. Over 55 percent of Black Americans live in the southern states with highest rate of uninsured and where governors and state attorneys general are fighting to dismantle and invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicaid expansion. Ironically, many of these same southern states have the highest poverty, highest uninsured, worst health, and shortest life expectancy.

Disproportionate infections, hospitalizations and deaths of Black Americans from COVID-19.

Black Americans are three times more likely than White Americans to contract COVID-19 and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus. Counties with higher Black populations account for over half of all COVID-19 cases and almost 60 percent of deaths. Black Americans have higher risk for contracting COVID-19 but have lower access to testing sites because of limited transportation.

Special health risks to school children, teachers, administrators, staff and household members living in COVID-19 "hot-spot" communities.

Over 56 million children are set to return to school this fall. Of the nation's 10 largest school districts, only New York City and Chicago appear to have achieved the less than 5 percent COVID-19 positivity goal set by CDC. COVID-19 is attacking children. Black children are hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than White children; the rate is eight times higher for Hispanic children. Major capital investments are needed to make school buildings healthy to reduce coronavirus spread. At least half of schools nationwide need HVAC updates. Some 30 percent of Black K-12 students and 18 percent of White students live in homes that lack internet connection or an adequate device for on-line learning.

Unequal burden and health risks borne by essential frontline workers and economic risks to small minority-owned businesses during era of COVID-19.

Health care workers of color are five times more likely than the general population to test positive for COVID-19. Black workers are overrepresented in nine of the ten "low-pay, high-risk" essential jobs increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19. Only 19.7 percent of black workers compared to 29.9 percent of White workers are able to telework. More than half of Black-owned businesses may not survive the pandemic. Early reports show 90 percent of Black companies were frozen out of the relief loans passed by Congress. Black business owners had a harder time getting federal aid under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Heightened risks to climate-vulnerable communities created by the new FEMA COVID-19 operational guidance during 2020 hurricane season.

Black Americans in climate-vulnerable communities are experiencing a "triple whammy" of a killer pandemic, gripping job and business losses, and converging threats posed by the current hurricane season. NOAA predicts the 2020 hurricane season could yield 25 named storms, comparable to 2005, the year that gave us of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA issued new guidance for local and state officials to use during 2020 disasters that emphasizes "shelter in place." Black communities that have a long history of repeated flooding may be left to fend for themselves or drown.

Theft of Black transformative wealth from environmental racism, racial redlining and housing discrimination.

Systemic racism places a hidden tax on being Black in America. Black wealth is roughly one tenth of white wealth. The average Black household has a net worth $800,000 lower than the average White household. Most middle-class wealth is embedded in home ownership. Racial bias costs Black homeowners an average of $48,000 per home, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses. Decades of racist redlining is showing up in urban heat island disparities and COVID-19 dangers in segregated Black communities.

Voter suppression that fuels people of color disenfranchisement.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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