When he first arrived in Ferguson to report on the death of young Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer in August 2014, journalist and author Jelani Cobb expected to hear about police violence.
Instead, the residents of this Missouri city told him about the schools where their children don’t receive the education they should have access to, their rundown housing, vulnerable employment and their health problems.
The New Yorker reporter concluded that police violence is merely a barometer highlighting everything else, everything that’s going wrong, against the backdrop of highly strained race relations.
Cobb returned to this story in a recent episode of the PBS podcast “Frontline,” where he draws links between the wave of anger triggered by the live video of George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The thousands of people who have taken to the streets of American cities for the past 10 days are not protesting against the coronavirus. At least not directly. But the disproportionate havoc it has wrought in Black neighborhoods reveals the structural inequalities between Black and white people, more than half a century after the official end of racial segregation in the United States.
The manner in which some police officers treat African Americans highlights these inequalities.
Black people make up 13% of the American population. But they represent 35% of the deaths from the coronavirus. Obviously, this excess morbidity is not due to chance. This is the result of a series of socioeconomic disparities that disadvantage African Americans and make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Almost one in two African Americans (47%) suffers from obesity, one of the leading causes of complications in coronavirus patients. Among white Americans, the proportion is 32%. About 13% of African Americans are diabetic, compared to 7% of white Americans.
African Americans are also more likely to have difficulty obtaining medical care to treat these conditions or illnesses. Being less wealthy than white Americans, they lag by 26% in a country where access to medical care comes at a price.
However, they are also more likely to have no access to health insurance, although the situation has improved since the adoption of the health care reform under Barack Obama. But some of our neighbors to the south are diabetics who stop taking insulin due to lack of money. And more African Americans end up in these extreme situations.
Many Black people are disadvantaged by the schools they attend, which offer a far lower quality of education than that offered by white-majority schools. This condemns many to remain trapped in poverty. The American dream of social mobility is not evenly distributed according to skin color.
Infant and maternal mortality, homeownership, incarceration rates: These are other areas in which the white majority has a profound advantage over the Black minority.
With regard to COVID-19, African American employees are also omnipresent in the health care system and have thus been more exposed to contagion. Overcrowded neighborhoods, poor housing conditions, a wave of layoffs that have disproportionately hit jobs held by Black workers add to this grim array of inequalities that have weakened the Black population in the face of the COVID-19 onslaught.
If Americans have been protesting in massive numbers over the past few days, it is first and foremost in reaction to the unbearable image of the agony suffered by Floyd, which reawakened memories of other African Americans senselessly killed by the police, including Brown.
But this protest movement has also become so widespread because police violence has forcefully drawn attention to the extent of the inequalities that have devastated the United States during this pandemic, and which are too often determined by the racial divide.
In other words, COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of 100,000 people in the United States, has been accompanied by another pandemic: that of inequality. In their extreme form, both are deadly.