The novel coronavirus and the knee that Derek Chauvin casually placed on George Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes have shown the exact same thing: there is a racial hierarchy in the U.S., and people of color–particularly black people–are at the bottom of it.
At this point, several months into the pandemic, most people are aware that COVID-19 has disproportionately killed black people in the U.S. In Louisiana, black people account for more than 53% of those who have died from COVID-19, although they make up only 33% of the population in the state. In Cook County, Illinois, they have made up 35% of the county’s COVID-19 deaths while constituting 23% of the population. In New York City, which was until recently the epicenter of the coronavirus out-break in the U.S., preliminary statistics show that the COVID-19 mortality rate for black people was 92.3 per 100,000 people. For white people, however, it was less than half of that: 45.2 per 100,000 people. These numbers make clear that the novel coronavirus is not a great equalizer–posing the same risk to everyone regardless of race. On the contrary, COVID-19 has revealed stark, but wholly familiar, racial inequities in health.
Researchers have long documented that black people have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, asthma and obesity, among other illnesses. Importantly, there is nothing innate to black people that explains why they are sicker (and die earlier) than their nonblack counter-parts. There is no gene specific to black people that predisposes them to death. As legal scholar Dorothy Roberts cogently explains, “It is implausible that one race of people evolved to have a genetic predisposition to heart failure, hypertension, infant mortality, diabetes and asthma. There is no evolutionary theory that can explain why African ancestry would be genetically prone to practically every major common illness.” Black people’s genes are not deadly. Rather, the way that we have organized society is deadly.
Neither can racial disparities in health be explained in terms of black people’s “culture.” Those who seek to justify our racial status quo have proposed that black people have a “culture” that leads them not to exercise, to eschew going to the doctor and to eat diets that are high in sugar, fat and sodium. Racial disparities in health are imagined to be the result of this toxic “culture.” This argument is convincing only to those who want to justify our racial state of affairs. If people of color do not exercise as they should, it is likely because they live in neighborhoods in which exercising outdoors is dangerous and opportunities like gyms or sports leagues are lacking. If people of color do not go to the doctor as often as their white counterparts, it is likely because they do not have health insurance or there are not quality health care providers available to them. If people of color eat foods that are high in sugar, fat and sodium, it is likely because those foods are the only affordable options in their area.
In truth, black people are sicker and die earlier than their white counterparts because they are more likely to encounter those things that we know compromise health–like inaccessible or biased health care providers, inadequate schools and education systems, unemployment, hazardous jobs, unsafe housing, and violent, polluted communities. There are studies upon studies upon studies documenting that the environments in which people of color live, work, play and age are all likely to damage their health. Attempts to explain racial disparities in health in terms of bad genes or bad culture are just excuses not to examine–and dismantle–the structural factors that actually explain why people of color are less healthy.
Notably, many of the illnesses that strike black people at higher rates are the underlying conditions–asthma, hypertension, heart and lung disease, diabetes–that are risk factors for developing a particularly severe case of COVID-19. What this means is that if black people contract the novel coronavirus, they are more likely to die.
Moreover, black people are less able than their white counterparts to engage in the social distancing that makes it possible to avoid contracting COVID-19 in the first place. Low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color, are the “essential workers” who are keeping our cities functioning and our country running. On this point, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report in March that stated that “only 9.2% of workers in the lowest quartile of the wage distribution can telework, compared with 61.5% of workers in the highest quartile.” It also noted that “less than 1 in 5 black workers and roughly 1 in 6 Hispanic workers are able to work from home.” Low-income people are the janitors. They are the farm laborers. They are stocking the shelves at the grocery stores. They are cooking food in restaurants. (This, of course, is if they were able to keep their jobs, as Hispanic and black Americans were more likely to be laid off or furloughed during the pandemic than white Americans.) Low-income people also cannot social distance because they are less likely to have a car. To go somewhere, they have to take buses. They have to take trains. This also heightens their risk of exposure.
And what happens if a person gets infected or thinks she might be infected? She is told to quarantine–to stay away from other people. But the housing that low-income people call home does not allow them to do that. It is virtually impossible to avoid contact when you are sharing a bathroom and bedroom with several family members.
So it is not surprising that COVID-19 has been particularly lethal to black people. Their inability to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus–and the increased likelihood of contracting the virus with a body that has already been damaged by structural racism–reveals black people’s vulnerability and marginalization.
George Floyd’s death reveals the exact same thing.
Police brutality against people of color is a spectacular form of the racial violence that our nation’s criminal-justice system inflicts every day. If we back up, we will see that the police encounter that led to Floyd’s death takes place within a larger context of mass incarceration. Presently, there are 2.3 million people housed in the country’s prisons, jails and other criminal-justice facilities. By most measures, this number is remarkable. It means that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. China comes in second, imprisoning 1.7 million people–over half a million fewer people than the U.S., in a country of 1.4 billion. The U.S. number translates to the imprisonment of 698 people for every 100,000. This rate dwarfs the incarceration rates of the countries that the U.S. usually thinks of as its peers. Indeed, the rate at which the U.S. incarcerates its population is roughly six times the highest rate of incarceration among Western European nations.
While these numbers, in and of themselves, might be disconcerting, they become even more disturbing when we consider the racial geography of the U.S.’s prison population: people of color, particularly black people, are disproportionately represented among those who are incarcerated. While black people constitute 12% of the U.S. population, they constitute 33% of the prison population. Thus, black people are dramatically overrepresented in the country’s prisons and jails. Meanwhile, white people make up 64% of the U.S. population, but they make up just 30% of the prison population.
The extremely high rates of black incarceration mean that, in many communities, it is not unreasonable for black people–particularly black men–to expect to go to jail at some point in their lives. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander observes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that in Washington, D.C., “it is estimated that 3 out of 4 young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.” On a national scale, 1 out of 3 black men should expect to be incarcerated during their lifetimes.
Even if the large number of black people presently imprisoned simply reflected the extremely debatable fact that a large number of black people commit crime, we should have a problem with mass incarceration. As legal scholar Paul Butler writes in Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, “Imagine a country that has statistics like D.C.’s in which more than one-third of the young male citizens are under the supervision of the criminal justice system: they either are in prison, on probation or parole, or have a trial coming up. Imagine a country in which two-thirds of the young men can anticipate being arrested before they reach age 30. Imagine a country in which there are more young men in prison than in college … Such a country sounds like a police state. When we criticize those kinds of regimes, we think that the problem lies not with the citizens of the state, but rather with the government or law.” Butler suggests that mass incarceration says less about the problematic values held by those who would break the law and more about the problematic commitments of the nation that would incarcerate these lawbreakers with such impunity.
Mass incarceration means that this country approaches its problems through the criminal-justice system. When faced with a social ill, our nation responds by building more prisons and jails. Because incarceration is the tool that we use to address societal problems, we have erected few limitations on the police’s ability to keep the social order. Police can stop whomever they want to stop whenever they want to stop them. They can investigate things that have no relation to the reason for the stop. They can use force. They can kill.
Like COVID-19, the criminal-justice system evidences the way a society that should care for and protect its people instead leaves black people susceptible to harm and with little control over their well-being. It does so through the tragically high numbers of black people who are in prisons and jails, in the disproportionate rates of incarceration of black people, in the violence of the tactics that governments have used to police communities of color, in the frequency with which black people’s encounters with the police end in death and in the infrequency with which police officers are indicted and convicted for killing black people.
Proof of this country’s racial hierarchy is everywhere. May we dismantle it in all its cruel, life-ending forms.
This appears in the June 22, 2020 issue of TIME.