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How the Government Created High-Risk Communities

racial justice

Governor Cuomo said in late March that the coronavirus “doesn’t discriminate.” But, as early as January 2020, when the pandemic was reportedly likely to hit China’s poor residents hardest, it was clear that COVID-19 would most severely impact “at-risk” communities in the United States and New York as well.

This week, the New York State legislature held a hearing exploring solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on “minority communities.” The NYCLU’s testimony called for a range of remedies for people and communities of color, who – according to state and national data – are being hit hardest by this pandemic.

Contrary to common assertions, communities of color aren’t at greater risk because of personal choices. Communities of color have been consistently put at risk because of public policy.

This public health crisis has exposed the detrimental effects of systemic racism on the socioeconomic and environmental conditions that largely determine a person’s health. 

Health outcomes at the individual and community levels are deeply impacted by social environment. These factors include income, education level, family and social support, and experience of discrimination, as well as physical environment – including place of residence, crowding conditions, air and water quality, and transportation systems.

In turn, these factors tend to determine a person or community’s “health services environment,” which includes people’s access to and quality of care.

Taken together, this means that socioeconomic factors, environmental factors, and their interaction with access to care are far more determinative of health outcomes than individual behaviors.  

The COVID-19 pandemic technically began in late December of last year, when the first known case was confirmed. But it also began in the 1930s, when the Federal Housing Authority subsidized the development of entire suburbs, with the requirement that no homes be sold to African Americans. And in the 1940s, when the GI Bill was structured to deny benefits to African-Americans. And in the many instances of land theft from Indigenous nations. And when neighborhoods of color were used as dumping grounds for toxic waste. 

It is time to remove the risks imposed upon communities of color and repair the generations of harms they’ve caused.

Decades of public policy decisions led to deep divisions in who has land, space, and clean air. While that has always resulted in inequities, they are especially stark now, as data continues to show that people living in high-density, historically redlined neighborhoods are being hit hardest by COVID-19.

Similarly, concerns about remote learning and the “digital divide” seem new, but they are the product of decades of unequal school funding that funneled more resources to already wealthy school districts and left under-resourced communities behind, even though they are facing the greatest barriers to remote education right now.

And, while the outbreak of COVID-19 in jails and prisons across the country started just a few months ago, it is the result of decades of mass incarceration that punished, exploited, and denied liberty to people of color.

New York’s carceral system’s destruction of communities of color reflects the decades of public policy choices: racist mandatory minimum prison sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, broken windows policing, the cash bail system, the torture of solitary confinement, voter disenfranchisement, housing and employment restrictions, and the policing of children at school.

Syracuse provides a stark example of the ways in which race, social and environmental factors, and government policy have interacted to predetermine the virus’ impact.

In Syracuse, many of the neighborhoods most affected by COVID were once redlined – a historic practice that denied Black people access to quality housing. Across New York as well as in Syracuse, the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID are the neighborhoods with the lowest proportion of white residents.

A review of EPA Lead Paint and Respiratory Hazard Indexes in Syracuse also shows that the communities most impacted by COVID are more exposed to ongoing environmental hazards, and more likely to be food deserts. Neighborhoods like these are also likely to be those where employment and income levels lag behind, which hurts the tax base and causes underfunding of education.   

These conditions are compounded by the mental, emotional and physical effects of perpetually experiencing state-sanctioned violence and terror that accompany racism.

The collective experience of a pandemic causes a myriad of traumas related to exposure to the virus, social isolation, loss of loved ones, loss of work and education, community devastation, and more. We have yet to appreciate the long-term impacts of this crisis.

But when it comes to the physical and psychological toll of racism, too often, public policy narratives focus far more on the perceived deficits of communities of color.

We must shift the focus towards undoing oppressive conditions, through policing and criminal legal system reforms that reduce the number of people who are arrested and behind bars, stronger worker protections that will especially benefit people of color and immigrant New Yorkers, and investments in education.

As we advocate for policy solutions to mitigate the immediate harms to people and communities in this period of crisis, we must also address structural racism – a foundational policy undergirding the inequities we seek to fix.

It is time to remove the risks imposed upon communities of color and repair the generations of harms they’ve caused.

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Civil Liberties Union