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People pay their respects at the makeshift memorial and mural outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 31.
Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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George Floyd and the cascade of crises in black America

He lost his job due to the coronavirus shutdown. Then he was killed by police.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has become emblematic of the potentially deadly risk of being black in America. But it’s not just his death that illustrates the country’s racial disparities. His life, especially amid the coronavirus, did as well.

Floyd, 46, had lost his job as a restaurant bouncer due to stay-at-home orders in his state. Of the millions of Americans laid off or furloughed during the coronavirus crisis, black workers are likelier to be affected than white workers.

The medical examiner who examined Floyd’s body said that “underlying conditions” likely contributed to his death, which came after now-former police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee for several minutes. They are among the underlying health conditions that black Americans disproportionately suffer from and that have contributed to higher rates of illness and death from Covid-19.

Centuries of racism and systemic inequality continuously disadvantage, disrupt, and cut short black lives in the United States. Currently, black Americans are experiencing multiple crises layered on top of one another. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, most recently, Floyd have lost their lives to white violence and police in recent weeks. Now mass protests are sweeping the country as a pandemic is wreaking havoc on black communities, in terms of both health and economics.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute delves into the myriad ways racial and economic inequality have exacerbated the impact of the coronavirus crisis on black communities.

Millions of black workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, putting them at a high degree of economic insecurity, in part because they’ve had lower incomes and less savings already.

Of those who’ve kept their jobs, many more are putting their health at risk — black workers are less likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home a risk magnified by inequalities in the health care system and a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions.

“Yes, people are dying across the country, but it is concentrated among certain areas,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who produced the report with Valerie Wilson, director of EPI’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy. “This is not some sort of great equalizer.”

These many inequalities work in tandem, and centuries and decades of systemic racism and disadvantages play out in multiple damaging and tragic ways. The Covid-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times the rate it is for white Americans. Black people are nearly three times likelier to be killed by police than whites.

The pandemic has exacerbated economic disparities in America

The coronavirus story is one about both health and the economy, and EPI’s report delves into both to look at how black workers and their families have been impacted.

“Although the current strain of the coronavirus is one that humans have never experienced before, the disparate racial impact of the virus is deeply rooted in historic and ongoing social and economic injustices,” the researchers write. “Persistent racial disparities in health status, access to health care, wealth, employment, wages, housing, income, and poverty all contribute to greater susceptibility to the virus — both economically and physically.”

Covid-19 has sort of split workers into different groups: people who have lost their jobs, people who have been deemed essential workers, and people who have kept their jobs and have been able to work from home. Black workers are likelier to find themselves in the first two groups than the third.

A chart showing the unemployment rate for black workers vs. white workers, also broken down by gender. Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, the Economic Policy Institute

The unemployment rate for black workers was higher than whites pre-pandemic and now. From February to April, more than one in six black workers lost their jobs, and as of April, less than half of the adult black population had jobs. Black workers’ unemployment rates are higher than white workers at every level of education.

The unemployment rate broken down by race and education level. Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, the Economic Policy Institute
A chart showing cash reserves comparing white families to black families. Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, the Economic Policy Institute

And because of longstanding inequities, when black households lose incomes, the situation for them is extra precarious.

There is a wage gap between black workers and white workers that holds across gender, wage percentile, and education. The overall average wage for black workers in 2019 was $21.05; for white workers, it was $28.66.

Black households have lower incomes and higher poverty rates than white households, they’re less likely to have multiple earners, and they have less cash reserves to draw on in times of need.

As of 2016, black households had on average $8,762 in reserves, and white households had $49,529, five times that amount.

According to one recent University of Chicago study, 55 percent of black households say they don’t have savings for unexpected shocks, compared to 38 percent of white households, and black families struggle more to be able to spend on the goods and services they need in moments of crisis.

When black workers are deemed essential, they’re at greater risk

Where black workers haven’t lost their jobs, many of them have been deemed essential during the pandemic. According to EPI, black workers generally make up one in nine workers, but they’re one in six front-line workers right now. And they’re disproportionately in essential jobs that are also low-wage ones — at grocery stores and pharmacies, in public transit, in health care, and in child care.

That leaves them at greater exposure to the virus and contributes to higher rates of illness and death from Covid-19 among black communities. Per EPI:

African Americans’ share of those who have died from COVID-19 nationally is nearly double (1.8 times higher than) their share of the U.S. population. The ratios are even higher in some states: in Wisconsin and Kansas, the rate of African American deaths is more than four times as high as their share of the population in those states. ... By comparison, whites account for a smaller share of deaths than their share of the population.

Black workers are less likely to have paid sick leave than whites, they’re less likely to be insured, and they have higher rates of chronic illnesses that may make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. EPI notes that black workers and their families are also likelier to live in densely populated housing, and they often live in multigenerational households. Younger members of the family who go to work then risk coming home and making older members sick.

Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, the Economic Policy Institute

As Fabiola Cineas wrote in April for Vox, just a “smidgen” of Covid-19 data on race tells the story of systemic oppression of black people in the United States. “Hundreds of years of slavery, racism, and discrimination have compounded to deliver poor health and economic outcomes for black people — heart disease, diabetes, and poverty, for starters — that are only being magnified under the unforgiving lens of the coronavirus pandemic. And negligible efforts to redress black communities are being agitated like a bee’s nest prodded with a stick,” she wrote.

In Minnesota, the epicenter of the Floyd protests, black people make up 7 percent of the state’s population but 16 percent of its confirmed coronavirus cases, my colleague Dylan Scott notes, though it’s not clear whether they’re dying at a higher rate. And nonwhite Minnesotans have experienced more economic pain during the pandemic as well.

On Monday, former President Barack Obama penned a Medium post on the Floyd protests. He outlined his thoughts on how to transform the moment into meaningful change and also acknowledged the anguish of the current moment. “I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life,” he wrote.

The country is experiencing a cascade of compounding crises — and the weight of the moment is falling on the shoulders of black Americans in countless ways.


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