As part of our weekly series on COVID-19, today we’re analyzing the relationship between academic opportunities, essential workers, and contracting the virus.
I’m also adding a FAQ at the bottom of this email with responses to some questions (accusations is more fitting) I’ve gotten from some emails this week. The email on reparations and the email on Confederate symbols got some people riled. And although I’m not interested in arguing on points, I think it’s important to call attention to how our biases influence how we process information. I’ll make this a weekly series (on Saturdays going forward—make sure you sign up for the newsletter for the future Q&As) where I’ll answer questions.
The impact of COVID-19 on essential workers
As we discussed in yesterday’s newsletter about reparations—which was somehow the most controversial newsletter I’ve published to date (more on that below)—there’s a significant wealth gap between white Americans and Black Americans. There’s also a similar wealth gap between white Americans and other non-white populations. And when analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown populations, economics plays a huge role in who’s likely to contract the disease.
Let’s first review the role of essential workers; the few roles left standing after jobs shuttered in the face of COVID-19. People of color make up nearly half the total population of essential workers overall, and make up the majority of essential workers in food and agriculture (50 percent) and in industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services (53 percent).
These essential roles tend to attract people who have been systemically disadvantaged from an academic perspective—those who haven’t had the opportunity or privilege to attend a higher institution, or who immigrated here to America. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 70 percent of essential workers do not have a college degree. Thirty percent of essential workers have some college or a high school diploma. One in 10 have less than a high school diploma.
To understand how many people find themselves in these types of roles, we have to look at the challenges that prevent people from excelling academically, particularly people of color. Not only do we know the significant barriers that prevent people of color from going to and graduating from college, we also know that there are disproportionate challenges for students of color to stay in school, even as early as elementary school.
Compounding this issue are the trends on employment: African Americans have a higher unemployment rate compared to the overall population right now, making it more difficult to justify leaving a job, even if it’s causing an increased likelihood of exposure to COVID-19. And remember that most people in essential jobs don’t have the financial capacity to take off time if they wanted to.
So these individuals are significantly more likely to contract the disease, but they’re also struggling to obtain the necessary support to protect themselves. For example, front-line health-care workers were are 12 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared with members of the public, but hospitals are still struggling to meet the basic needs for PPE while cases surge. Since many gig workers—who are also deemed essential—are contractors, not employees of companies like Uber and DoorDash, they don’t have employee protections that give them job security, health care, or even PPE. Black people are twice as likely to lack health insurance compared with their white counterparts.
These challenges affect every essential worker from every ethnic background, regardless of race. But considering the racial makeup of the population, these challenges also contribute to the larger racial disparaties of the impact of COVID-19.
Next week we’ll analyze how undocumented immigrants have moved from “illegal” to “essential” during COVID-19, and the importance of protecting their health and safety.
“We’re not essential, we’re expendable.” —Denita Jones, a Dallas-area call center worker in this article for The Guardian
Each Saturday I’ll try to answer questions that come in from pieces throughout the week. I can’t get to everyone’s questions and I’m automatically deleting any racist insults that come into my inbox, but I’m looking forward to hearing your inquiries! This week I’m addressing less questions, more accusations, that have come in.
“My white ancestors had a lot of hardships when they came to America, too! Why don’t they get reparations?”
For starters, my email advocating for reparations for Black people does not say anywhere that other people from other racial backgrounds are ineligible for reparations. In fact, we can only hope that a movement towards reparations would encourage reparations for other people that have been harmed.
This line of argument is a common way people invalidate the experiences of marginalized people, and through this logic, inadvertently uphold systems of oppression. Remember that acknowledging harm against one person doesn’t invalidate the harm against another.
Instead, I wish people with these arguments could empathize, and, with this deep and direct understanding of similar pain and trauma, feel more connected with the pain of others and join in solidarity.
Also, this person in particular was referring to the Irish slaves myth, which is factually inaccurate and is a popular argument used by white nationalists.
“I never owned a slave. My tax-paying dollars should not have to support a Black person.”
First off, from my understanding, there is no formal proposal for an economic model for reparations. That would be, in part, what a task force for Congress would work on with the passing of H.R. 40. Yesterday’s call to action was to encourage the task force to be created, not to empty anyone’s pocketbooks.
But also remember that today, right now, your tax-paying dollars are actively supporting police brutality, unfair criminal justice practices, and discriminatory housing and hiring practices. You may not have personally owned a slave, or even your family, but if we are all paying taxes, we are all complicit in this system right now.
This is a form of othering—distancing oneself from the harm that has happened to eschew accountability. Even if we are not directly responsible for something that’s happened in our society, we must hold ourselves accountable. It’s akin to people that see a car crash on the highway in front of them, and keep driving instead of stopping to see if the victims need help.
“Black people won’t know what to do with the money. They’ll spend it on drugs and alcohol.”
I’m not even going to argue against this racist stereotype because I don’t have the patience. But let’s just unpack that you, lovely reader, believe that a nationwide initiative for reparations shouldn’t happen because of the potential of people spending it against your wishes. You believe that you know what is best for an entire population based on your perception of their relationship with money. You would rather that a significant act to reduce racial inequities does not happen than for funds to be potentially spent unwisely.
There’s also another harmful practice where the actions of a Black person somehow are indicative of Black people as a whole. One financially irresponsible Black person doesn’t mean all Black people are, in the same way that just because Barack Obama became president doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist.
That money won’t even solve racism in America, or pay for all that pain.
Yep, this is true. We can’t solve racism in America with a paycheck. Reparations isn’t to solve racism, it’s to reduce the economic impact of it. Germany wasn’t hoping that money would make the impact of the Holocaust disappear, and we still mourn its devastating impact in today’s time. But again, does that mean it shouldn’t happen at all? Consider why you feel that blocking reparations helps move the movement forward.
Something else to consider—reparations could be used to invest in improving the systems that perpetuate racism, like creating more equitable housing and healthcare systems or improving education.
A lot of good men died for the Confederacy.
There’s been good men (and women) that have lived and fought and died on both sides of conflict throughout time. Removing Confederate symbols and statues are not to diminish their individual names, but reduce the prominence of the harm their work represents. Robert E. Lee, the most prominent symbol of the Confederacy, was most likely a great father and husband.
This is a form of deflection. It creates an argument that’s counter-productive to the conversation (where did I say in my newsletter that everyone that died for the Confederacy were bad men?) And it doesn’t even address the key point—that Confederate symbols were often erected as white supremacy symbols after the war ended, and are still used to incite racial violence to this day.
On the flip side, many of you noted that we also should be tearing down statues of Christopher Columbus, too, which is absolutely valid. I should have mentioned him (and conversations on George Washington, the harmful depictions of Native Americans, and much more) though I plan to unpack all of this in future newsletters. Luckily, dozens of other harmful statues are being torn down right now, not just those associated with the Confederacy.
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