Op-Ed: It took a pandemic for minorities to finally get some representation … and it's killing us

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 9:14am

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Design courtesy of Hibah Chugtai

The growing COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life in ways previously unimaginable to citizens around the world. Billions of children, workers and students around the world have had a complete 180 turn in their regular lifestyles. This incredibly infectious disease has managed to completely dismantle our society and reshape our social norms. In these difficult times, it is imperative that our school, state and national leaders apply a sociological lens to understand how different groups in the United States are experiencing this pandemic. In this piece, I will break down how racial minorities — specifically Black Americans — are, yet again, disproportionately disadvantaged as COVID-19 has taken over the world, shedding light on the potential causes for these vast disparities.

Before continuing, I feel it is important to iterate how racism operates on a systemic scale. Black Americans have higher mortality rates, lower life expectancies and report poorer health statuses than white Americans. For years, many sociologists and public health officials have studied specifically how racism impacts health outcomes in the United States. At the start of the U.S. outbreak, many claimed COVID-19 would be a disease that would prove that all people — despite their wealth, race, gender or class — were equal, as it was infecting celebrities and wage workers alike. This is hardly the actuality of the case. When looking at the COVID-19 mortality data, it is easy to see that the penetrative nature of racism and classism have actually proven what many social science disciplines have been saying for decades — the lives of minority groups in the U.S. are simply not valued. 

One might wonder if it is possible that racial minorities have some biological predisposition to these illnesses that is, in turn, making them more susceptible to die from COVID-19. This is a misinformed assumption that is, unfortunately, a widespread belief amongst medical professionals as well. Instead, the intersection of different social identities can bring about unique advantages or disadvantages for several populations within the U.S. The differences in socioeconomic status across racial groups are a major contributor to racial disparities in health outcomes. Social determinants of health are a framework encompassing these social factors that perpetuate poor health outcomes for certain minority groups. The tricky thing about health is that it is impacted by every social institution in this country, meaning it is unfortunately shaped by social, economic and racial inequalities. 

In addressing how he plans to tackle these growing disparities, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says, “You know, it always seems that the poorest people pay the highest price. Why is that? Whatever the situation is.” In New York, areas like the Bronx — with high minority populations — have been hit the hardest. The disparities are even more drastic in rural states like Louisiana, where Black folks make up 52 percent of COVID-19 deaths despite only being 32 percent of the state population. In Alabama, Black people make up just 27 percent of the population, but consist of 45 and 46 percent of the cases and deaths, respectively. Similarly, right here in Michigan, Black people account for just 14 percent of the population, and yet they represent 41 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Many of these disparities are happening in Detroit and the surrounding Wayne County where, just a couple months ago, hospitals and medical facilities were completely overwhelmed with terminally ill patients and fatalities. It is critically important for our Michigan community to understand why these disparities exist and what can be done to address them. 

This is happening in our backyard.

According to the information from the CDC, the likelihood of dying from the virus increases if you have certain underlying health conditions. Some of these underlying conditions include diabetes, serious heart conditions, severe obesity, liver disease and chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma. These are all illnesses in which Black Americans, as well as some other racial minorities, are overburdened with. This is explained by the unfortunate fact that racial and ethnic minorities experience more barriers to diagnosis and care, receive lower-quality treatment when they do, endure higher levels of stress and have less access to healthy lifestyle options that prevent cardiovascular diseases. It may seem like the disparities in obesity and diabetes rates are a result of unhealthy choices freely made, but in reality, there are systemic constraints that these “choices” are made under.

Pre-existing inequalities in Black communities are only exacerbated by COVID-19. A significant contributor to these disparities is that racial minorities are far more likely than white people to be exposed to the virus. This is due to housing conditions which make it harder to self-isolate and persisting economic inequalities. Black people do not have generational wealth supporting them like their white counterparts, meaning they have less property and savings thus causing a greater dependence on their next salary. This is, in part, why Black people and other racial minorities are overrepresented as essential workers who have had to continue going to work, increasing their likeness to be exposed to the virus. To be clear, this is not to say all Black people are poor and living “paycheck to paycheck.” Although many Black Americans today are rich, this is all “new” money that was not inherited or passed down. Rather, many affluent Black Americans today are among the first in their ancestral lines to experience a high socioeconomic status. 

Despite their ability to slip through the cracks of the aforementioned social barriers, Black people of a higher SES status still face a large cause of health disparities — discrimination within the health care system. Doctors and nurses, typically white and belonging to the upper/middle class, often take up an “us vs. them” mentality when dealing with patients. This problematic attitude specifically is directed towards minority patients of low SES that look nothing like the medical team treating them. Over the years, American medical culture has shifted to prioritizing the subjective experience of the patient rather than objectifying the patient and treating the illness instead of the person. This is to the detriment of Black patients. 

Due to extreme implicit bias and systemic racism within the medical field, their subjective experience is often mishandled and devalued. Many Black Americans are victims of bias and discrimination from health care providers who do not take their symptoms seriously and are less likely to accurately diagnose or test them as fast as their white counterparts. Currently, a 2017 Pearson medical textbook “diversity spotlight” page is circulating on social media showing how various cultures experience pain. Underneath Black cultures was: “Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures. They believe pain and suffering are inevitable.” This kind of misinformed overgeneralization perpetuates, and even justifies, discrimination within the medical field. In the context of this pandemic, it might explain why Black Americans are not getting tested at the same frequency, reporting to the ER at later stages of the disease than white patients and, perhaps, not being administered the proper care once they are admitted to the ICU.

It would be irresponsible to remain ignorant to the reality that is racism and how it negatively — and even fatally — impacts the health of Black people. Racial disparities have existed from even before the birth of this nation. Yet somehow, conversations surrounding equity, allyship and anti-racism have only recently become popular in mainstream media in light of the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by another American institution penetrated by racism and classism: the criminal justice system. The social causes of these disparities are numerous and now, more than ever, is the time for extreme action. As we make plans to return to campus this fall amid a pandemic, we must be conscious citizens. We must be intentional in the ways we protect those who society has already failed. After all, what greater way is there to truly be the leaders and the best? We might not be able to stand together in the Big House this fall, but we can stand in unity against systemic racism and all the avenues it might exist on our beloved campus.

Jade Kissi is a rising senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at jkissi@umich.edu