The following column originally appeared in The Lens.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all in unimaginable ways, the impact of this crisis has been felt most acutely in Black communities. Black people make up about 33 percent of Louisiana’s population, but have accounted for 57 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
This disparity is staggering but not surprising for those of us who have experienced the deeply-rooted effects of institutionalized racism first-hand.
As the ACLU of Louisiana’s Racial Justice Fellow and as a Black person born and raised in south Louisiana, I’m deeply familiar with the ways in which systemic racism impacts the well-being of Black people across the state.
A person’s health is determined by the conditions of the environments in which they live, learn, and work. And for Black people in Louisiana and across the South, structural inequity has long affected a wide range of quality-of-life outcomes and risks. Our ability to survive this crisis and heal our communities has everything to do with our ability to confront and address these structural inequities.
State officials are urging people to “stay home” and “slow the spread [of COVID-19]” – but 56 percent of Louisiana’s homeless population is Black. How is it possible to “stay home” and “slow the spread” when you have no home?
New Orleans ranks eighth in the country for parishes/counties with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per resident. In New Orleans’ majority-Black neighborhoods, one in four renter households faced a court-ordered eviction. By comparison, one in 24 renter households in majority-white neighborhoods faced a court-order eviction.
Racism does not end with housing precarity. Inequity pervades our water and the very air we breathe.
From lead-tainted water in communities such as St. Joseph, Louisiana to “Cancer Alley,” where toxic air emissions released by the industry are linked to a host of ailments, Black people are more likely to live in communities affected by harmful chemicals and pollutants.
It is no surprise that some of these same communities are now hot zones for COVID-19, which preys on those whose respiratory systems are already compromised by environmental pollutants. St. James Parish, where about 50 percent of the population is Black, recently made national news for being among the hardest-hit parishes nationwide for cases of COVID-19 per capita.
Not too far away in St. John the Baptist Parish, where Black people make up 58 percent of the population, the community ranked among the top 30 of parishes/counties with the highest number of cases per residents – but there are no ICU beds.
It is well documented that health outcomes are highly-correlated with economic well-being.
Black people in Louisiana are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white people, which also puts them at increased risk of being uninsured. Even among Black people who are employed, the situation remains dire, with 57.4 percent of Black workers in Louisiana making less than $15 an hour.
Unsurprisingly, this has created a racial income and wealth gap.
Black Louisianans are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than whites, and 15.5 percent of Black Louisianans live in deep poverty – meaning their income is less than half of the federal poverty level.
While some of us have shifted to working from home, our essential workers and gig economy workers, who are mostly Black or Latinx, do not share the same luxury. Ironically, the same jobs that are deemed “essential” are also the least likely to offer a living wage, health insurance, or paid sick leave. These essential workers are also less likely to have personalized protection equipment while working, leaving them exposed to the virus.
Black and Latinx people are risking their lives to make ends meet and supply the rest of the country with the goods and services on which we rely.
Criminal Legal System
Perhaps nothing encapsulates the devastating impact of racism and structural inequity – and the living legacy of white supremacy – more than our criminal legal system.
The ACLU of Louisiana’s report, Justice Can’t Wait, revealed that Black Louisianans were more than twice as likely to be jailed pretrial and spend 36 percent more time in jail pretrial than their white counterparts. In Louisiana prisons, Black people account for more than two-thirds of the population. And as Louisiana incarcerates more of its people than any other place in the country, it also has the highest prison death rate in the country and spends the least per capita on prison healthcare.
This has led to a public health catastrophe of epic proportions – with devastating racial impacts.
Louisiana’s overcrowded jails and prisons, where precautions like social distancing are impossible, have become tinderboxes for COVID-19. For weeks, public health experts have been sounding the alarm on incarcerating people during this pandemic, making it clear that when COVID-19 hit facilities, it would “spread like wildfire.” Tragically, the “when” is now here – with hundreds of confirmed cases and a death toll that continues to rise.
Confronting Racial Injustice Can Save Lives
Racial injustice is deadly, but we know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Addressing systemic inequity requires addressing everything from data, housing, economics, healthcare, governance, and our criminal legal system.
In our criminal legal system, this means reducing prison populations, rooting out racial bias in enforcement, ending the criminalization of poverty, and reducing pretrial detention.
For our health care system, it means rapidly scaling up capacity and resources available to Black and brown communities, especially when it comes to the prevention and management of chronic illnesses.
In the economic and housing spheres, we need to raise the minimum wage, prevent evictions, and provide greater support for minority-owned businesses. Essential workers should have immediate access to citizenship, debt forgiveness, health insurance, and to the kinds of cash and credit supports that promote homeownership and higher education.
And for the environment, it means stopping corporate abuses of our most vulnerable communities and helping people relocate from places with unhealthy levels of pollution.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder of the deadly toll racial injustice takes on families and communities. What makes COVID-19 so deadly for Black communities is not race – it’s racism, and hundreds of years of systemic discrimination in housing, health care, and employment.
That is why we need a real and honest conversation about how structural inequity and racism persist – and how they originated.
Only then will we have the opportunity to move toward a Louisiana where “We The People” truly means all of us.