The Great Depression. The AIDS epidemic. The 2008 recession. Time and time again, health and financial crises that devastated the country as a whole have had uniquely disastrous and long-lasting effects on Black communities already subjected to racial and economic injustice.
All signs point to COVID-19, a combined economic and public health calamity, repeating this deeply unequal history, experts say, with Black Americans likely to suffer elevated joblessness and poverty, vulnerability to infection, and poor health outcomes for many months to come.
For local leaders supporting their neighbors through the pandemic, it is evident that the fight for a comeback will be long and difficult, with full recovery anything but guaranteed.
“The devastation of COVID, it just exaggerated what Black communities have already been dealing with,” said Frank Farrow, a Roxbury resident and executive director of Elevate Boston, a nonprofit that has distributed food, masks, and other necessities to Black and brown families throughout the pandemic.
“The financial inequities and hardships . . . they’re not going to go away just because there’s a vaccine,” Farrow said.
Much of the country breathed a sigh of relief in December, when vaccine distribution began, overall unemployment rates dropped and then held steady, and an incremental but viable path to ending the pandemic seemed to appear.
But for people of color, and Black Americans in particular, experts say, exiting a crisis is almost always a more prolonged, difficult process than it is for white Americans.
Experts said that systemic inequalities leave Black communities at a chronic disadvantage in terms of health, wealth, and employment, a sort of preexisting condition that is only heightened during periods of national crisis.
Ultimately, experts said, how Black communities exit crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors the way they enter them: on unequal footing.
“It’s just baseline inequity within our system,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There is no Operation Warp Speed to address the structural racism that led to these disparities in health care outcomes,” she said. “There’s no plan to, at the very least, narrow the wealth gap between Black and brown individuals and our white counterparts.”
The racial wealth gap undergirds many inequalities, said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at The New School.
“Wealth is often thought of as an outcome, but ... its value [is] as an input. And that value becomes even more paramount in an economic downturn,” said Hamilton, who coauthored an oft-cited 2015 study that found non-immigrant Black Bostonian households, on average, held just $8 in wealth, compared to $247,500 for white households. Other studies have yielded a range of estimates, but the racial gap is invariably huge.
Besides allowing families and communities to survive financial setbacks, he said, wealth also empowers workers to make tough decisions about their employment — for example, in the case of COVID-19, he said, walking away from a front-line job that puts them at elevated risk for disease. Black workers, Hamilton said, have rarely been in a position to choose.
These preexisting inequalities set the stage for ethnic and racial patterns that emerged during the pandemic, experts said.
Nationally, Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American people have suffered higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death compared to white, non-Hispanic Americans. And for the duration of the pandemic, Black and Latino workers have disproportionately worked in high-risk, front-line jobs and seen the highest unemployment rates. Unemployment for each group was above 9 percent in December, compared to 6.7 percent for the country overall.
As the pandemic subsides, public health and economic experts warned that racial gaps that COVID-19 reinforced could widen, following a pattern seen in the wake of previous crises.
In the 2008 recession, and in previous downturns, Black people experienced a phenomenon economists call “first fired, last hired” in which, due to hiring discrimination, Black people are disproportionately among the first laid off as jobs disappear and last to benefit from a comeback.
In a similarly unequal recovery, as HIV treatment and prevention have advanced, racial disparities that surfaced at the height of that epidemic “have actually widened” for Black and Latino men who have sex with men, compared with their white counterparts, said Ojikutu, who specializes in HIV.
New equity issues often emerge just as disasters are dying down, experts said: Unequal access to economic relief or new medical interventions can widen racial gaps, and Black communities can be left in distress while much of the rest of the country moves on.
In this pandemic, public health experts worry that delayed vaccination among Black people — a problem fueled by unequal vaccine access and a long history of medical racism and mistrust — could result in the virus circulating widely in predominantly Black neighborhoods while other populations are comparatively protected. At the very least, they said, a slower vaccine rollout will mean the virus stays with Black communities longer, even if they eventually reach target immunization rates.
“We will likely see increases in the stark disparities that we have noted related to COVID-19 hospitalizations and mortality if vaccine access and uptake are not equitable,” Ojikutu said.
From an economic standpoint, signs of unequal recovery are already appearing. Though the pandemic’s sudden onset meant that all racial groups faced layoffs and job loss at the same time, Black workers are facing a slower return to work, economists said. Black unemployment declined about 41 percent from April to December, versus over 50 percent for other racial groups.
Black workers themselves are often blamed for such inequities in recovery, accused of not seeking or qualifying for jobs, said William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“[Policymakers] wash their hands and walk away because they’re convinced this has nothing to do with something they’re doing,” he said. “They don’t think it’s via policy. ‘It’s something wrong with those Black people,’ they think.”
In reality, he said, even policies aimed at supporting economic comebacks often exacerbate inequality, either by ignoring structural racism or by putting up unnecessary barriers to assistance. The first round of pandemic relief loans offers an example: The federal government entrusted distribution in large part to major banks, many of which have a history of discrimination and limited relationships with Black-owned small businesses. Though data on the race of PPP loan recipients is limited, studies have found that Black employers’ applications were denied more often, and businesses in majority-Black neighborhoods waited longest to receive funds.
In neglecting to support Black communities, the entire country loses out, Spriggs said, because “we don’t continue to pursue the policies that get to true, full recovery.”
Racial equity must be a central goal of pandemic recovery, said Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
“It would be tragic if we ignored [the inequalities] that made us so vulnerable . . . not only because it’s immoral, but because it really is risky for our ability to withstand future threats,” Bassett said.
While unequal recovery could carry costs for the nation down the line, Black Bostonians said their communities are already feeling the painful effects of being left behind.
“Exiting the pandemic will be mostly about ensuring that we have a seat at the table so that our needs are heard,” said Representative Chynah Tyler, of Massachusetts’ Seventh Suffolk District. “Communities of color are continuing to struggle with equal access to COVID-19 relief and getting PPE. We must close these gaps first.”
Leonard Lee, a Dorchester resident, has spent the last several months trying to close such gaps. Lee, who has a background in public health, created Masking the Community, a grass-roots effort that distributed tens of thousands of masks to low-income residents.
Still, Lee worries that suffering in his community will be forgotten as public attention turns away from the pandemic and its ills.
“After COVID leaves, theoretically, it’s not going to really leave in terms of the impact that it’s had on Black and brown communities,” he said.
His neighborhood lives off of mom-and-pop businesses, he said — “barber shops, the little soul food joints, and bodegas, and beauty salons, and the like” — many of which have closed permanently. Some of Lee’s neighbors are also hesitant about the vaccine or unsure how they will access it.
Taken together, “that’s going to really set us back even more,” Lee said. “And so we play catch-up.”
As Farrow, the Elevate Boston director, prepared to pick up another round of food and COVID-19 safety supplies for households that have asked for help — a group that has grown since March from 500 to 1,500 — he said recovery still feels distant.
“I don’t feel as if the Black community is going to just miraculously bounce back,” he said. “The issues of food insecurity, housing instability, health inequities, and unemployment are all too familiar to Black Boston.”
True recovery would mean ending those ongoing crises, not just COVID-19, he said.
“The Black community has been forced to be resilient for far too long. It is time we have the necessary tools and support to become thriving communities.”