American Sociological Association

Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Linking Higher Black Mortality Rates from COVID-19 to Racism and Racial Inequality (Racial and Ethnic Minorities)

Loren Henderson, University of Maryland-Baltimore County
Hayward Derrick Horton, SUNY-Albany
Melvin Thomas, North Carolina State University

One of the greatest professional challenges facing sociologists dealing with the coronavirus is to quickly analyze and interpret the vast amounts of relevant epidemiological, demographic and social data, and present those data to both the academic community and, most importantly, the public at large. This is especially important given the tendency by some politicians and social media outlets to present misinformation to the public. 

Sociologists who study racial disparities often use theories of structural discrimination (i.e., racism as a primary factor) to provide an understanding of the causes and consequences of the extensive racial inequality that exists in the U.S. This racial inequality can be clearly seen in the COVID-19 pandemic that has created a major medical crisis in the U.S. and the world. Specifically, preliminary data have revealed a striking, yet predictable, pattern: Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are much more likely than whites to die from the COVID-19 virus. 

For weeks the CDC and other public health officials have presented models for flattening the curve. However, based on our understanding of racism and the racial inequality it produces, we knew whose lives this virus would more likely take. The same racism that results in lower quality health care and a greater likelihood of underlying health conditions makes Black people, and other disadvantaged groups, more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The classic studies Bad Blood by James Jones (1981), Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington (2006), and Health Issues in the Black Community by Braithwaite, Taylor, and Treadwell (2009) documented the relationship between racism and health inequality. The question for today is what indicators would demonstrate the continued existence of this relationship during the current pandemic? We argue that disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans is one indicator of racism in the public health system. Placed in the context of other racial disparities that are likewise correlates of racism, the overrepresentation of Black, Latino, and Native American COVID-19 cases and deaths lends greater support for our argument. 

We identified those states and the District of Columbia (n=40) that report racial data on COVID-19 cases and deaths for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans and analyzed those data. Understanding these important descriptive patterns is a necessary step towards developing a more comprehensive analysis of racism relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that blacks were overrepresented in COVID-19 cases in 28 states, Latinos in 20 states, and Asians in 3 states. Tragically, in almost every state that reported racial data (n=24), Blacks were much more likely than any other ethnic group to die from COVID-19 infections. Latinos and Asians were overrepresented in deaths in 3 states. In contrast, Whites were underrepresented in the number of cases and deaths. 

Because the number of Native Americans is small, there is a lack of reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths by states. Among the states that reported racial data, only three states reported an overrepresentation of COVID-19 cases among Native Americans and only Arizona reported an overrepresentation in deaths. However, a better indication of the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on Native Americans can be seen in the Navajo Nation data. At the time we are writing, the Navaho Nation has reported 1,540 cases and 58 deaths in a population of approximately 300,000.

As expected, we found that there are disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths among Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Despite the significant lack of reporting and underreporting of race data on cases and deaths by state, we still found a marked pattern of racial COVID-19 health disparity in the U.S. Given the vast literature on systemic racism, as sociologists we are keenly aware of the importance of elucidating the burden of COVID-19 on communities of color. 

In conclusion, there is much that sociologists can do to advance the study of racism and COVID-19 as well as alleviate the problems associated with this pandemic. First, sociologists can insist that the U.S. Department of Public Health imposes uniform data collection and reporting standards on all health issues. This will result in race data on COVID-19 being easily accessible. At present, on most state websites the data are hidden, missing or inconsistent. 

The second thing that sociologists can do is to step up and take their rightful places as experts on social realities and their impact on health. The causes and consequences of the disparate health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color is essentially sociological. Therefore, sociologists should be at the forefront in research as well as public and academic discussions of this important issue.