Black Communities on the Frontlines: The Inequality Crisis and COVID

How states, localities and educators are responding

More than 20,000 African Americans – or 1 of every 2,000 Black residents – have died from COVID-19.

Across the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is hitting many Black communities especially hard, revealing a stunning difference in the COVID-19 death rate of Black Americans and the rest of the country. Consistently, evidence shows that our society fails to protect and nurture Black people the way it cares for others.

Educators, advocates and community members are mobilizing to pressure elected officials and government agencies to acknowledge and address these disparities.

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The COVID-19 Racial Data Gap

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been slow to release ethnic and racial data, and race was missing or unspecified in nearly 60 percent of the confirmed cases reported by the CDC as of early May. Even with limited data, however, clear patterns have emerged. In April, a CDC report found that 33 percent of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were Black, although they comprised only 18 percent of the communities being evaluated.

In the absence of federal data on COVID-19 deaths by race, and non-existent reporting in some states, the non-partisan APM Research Lab stepped in, gathering stats from 40 states, covering nearly 90 percent of the more than 90,000 deaths recorded in the United States. In mid-May, APM reported that African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 22.9 for Latinos, 22.7 for Asian Americans and 20.7 for whites. More than 20,000 African Americans – or 1 of every 2,000 Black residents – have died from the disease.

SOURCE: APM Research Lab

The disparities are even more extreme in some states. In Kansas, Black residents are dying at seven times the rate of whites. The disparity is six times in Washington, D.C., and five times in Michigan and Missouri. In three pandemic hotspots – New York, Illinois and Louisiana – Blacks are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites.

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The Disparity in Outcomes Driven by Structural Racism

Click here to view Racial Justice Resources: Justice for Black Lives

National or global disasters — whether they are public health crises such as COVID-19 or the 1918 flu pandemic, or natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina — often magnify inequality and underscore disparate access to health care, housing and other resources. They also tend to exacerbate pre-existing risk factors, such as chronic illness, and disproportionately expose people to risk based upon occupation, household income or ZIP code.

  • Pre-existing health conditions increase COVID-19 risk. Black Americans are more likely than whites to suffer from a number of illnesses and chronic conditions—including diabetes and hypertension. Public health experts and historians attribute many of these disparities to a long legacy of discrimination, economic deprivation and inadequate access to health care. Many of these health conditions are also comorbidities of COVID-19 hospitalizations and contribute to higher death rates among African Americans.
  • Social distancing is harder in more densely populated areas. Compared to whites, African Americans disproportionately live in more densely populated metropolitan areas. People of color now constitute a majority of residents in the five most densely populated cities in the United States. For many Black residents, this can mean more crowded housing conditions, greater reliance on public transportation and decreased ability to maintain social distancing, all of which can increase exposure to the coronavirus.
  • African Americans are more likely to be frontline “essential” workers. African Americans are more likely than whites to be frontline retail, health care and public transit workers. From ER nurses, to Walmart checkers, to bus drivers, the majority of Americans doing these jobs are people of color, and many are African American. If they still have a job, they typically do not have the luxury of working from home and many lack access to paid sick leave. The nature of the work puts them in more regular contact with the general public. Many also report chronic shortages of face masks and other protective equipment. All of this puts them at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 and can contribute to higher rates of infection and death among African Americans.


Mobilizing to Raise Awareness and Address Disparities

Across the country, educators, community organizations, elected officials and state governments are mobilizing to raise awareness and call on decision makers to address these disparities.

  • In April, NEA Vice President Becky Pringle joined the NAACP, BET, Senator Elizabeth Warren and other national leaders for a COVID-19 virtual town hall focused on the health, economic, and social impact of pandemic on the African American community.

  • NEA members witnessing disparities first-hand are working to ensure students are safe, first and foremost, and then helping them to access tools they needed for learning to continue at home. Just a few examples: In California, educators have delivered meals to students; in Florida, teachers have delivered learning packets; and in Wisconsin, bus drivers drove to parking lots to set up hotspots for students who didn’t have access to the internet.
  • In early May, the National Action Network, Black Women’s Roundtable Public Policy Network, NAACP, and the National Urban League participated in a call with Joe Biden to discuss COVID-19 and the needs of Black America.
  • The National Action Network is also heading a national coalition of black faith and civil rights leaders that is calling on Congress to “ensure that state and local governments have the resources needed to support communities of color across the nation.”
  • The state of Maryland is looking at a plan to leverage churches and community health centers to provide COVID-19 testing and treatment to black and Hispanic communities.
  • Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a task force to study the impact of coronavirus on African Americans and minority communities.
  • The NAACP wrote a letter to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson calling for a statewide moratorium on evictions to protect tenants experiencing economic hardship during the pandemic.
  • Color of Change is calling on Congress to protect Black-owned businesses through small business grants, targeted funds for black-owned businesses, and a full, public accounting by race, gender, and geography of where stimulus money has gone.

Inequality created this crisis, so ending inequality is the only way out of it
. For decades health and wealth policies have created inequality, and those in charge have a choice to address these problems and prevent these conditions. By standing together and working together, we will all get better.


Resources for Our Community


Centering Black Emotional, Mental and Physical Health


Policy Responses Addressing COVID-19 in the Black Community