Racism Laid Bare with COVID-19

Relief from this health crisis must include systemic change centered on equity.

CHICAGO—The COVID-19 crisis lays bare the systemic inequities and structural racism that many communities experience daily. Data show that Black Americans are contracting and dying from the virus at disproportionately higher rates than others. There is also evidence that Latinx households may be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but public data collection often improperly counts them as white.

The greatest ill in our nation—racism–has been here for centuries. Our country has historically created and implemented policies and laws that perpetuate poverty and racial inequity.  Every time America is tested, from natural disasters to economic crashes, we fail to acknowledge these inequities and protect our Black and Brown communities. This pandemic follows the path we laid.

A legacy of structural racism has resulted in Black and Brown communities receiving starkly less in terms of quality education, employment, healthcare, housing, and resources, and starkly more in terms of criminalization, environmental toxins, and willful neglect. Today, we know that Black and Latinx workers, who are overrepresented in low-wage and temp jobs, positions long excluded from labor protections but now deemed essential, are more likely to be exposed to this virus and more likely to become ill. Black and Latinx communities and their families are more likely to be uninsured and live next to harmful contamination that worsen their health and immune systems, making them more susceptible to death due to underlying health conditions. Because the criminal legal system continues to disproportionately target and incarcerate Black communities, they are vastly more likely to be trapped within a jail or prison, a growing source of infections.

Bias, stigma and blame around mask wearing and social distancing reinforce racialized stereotypes that provide cover to government and agencies for diverted resources and overall justification of disparities. We must also acknowledge that immigrant communities are both getting vilified and being left out of federal assistance. And from the onset of this crisis, the Asian American community has faced a wave of racism, fueled by a narrative of hate repeated by President Trump.

America’s awakening of consciousness around racial health disparities is an opportunity to  move our nation into action to address and dismantle these  disparities. We must fight racism and poverty with even greater might to combat this relentless pandemic and its long-term effects. The virus may not discriminate, but humans do. 

Since COVID-19 arose as a serious threat to Americans last month, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, with our community partners, immediately began advocating on all fronts to identify  the necessary law and policy changes and budget allocations needed to sustainably bring this response to scale.

Relief that addresses this crisis in a manner that protects and supports Black and Brown communities can move this country toward long overdue systemic change. The scale and quality of recovery efforts must meet the need, regardless of the class, race, or immigration status of the people affected by a crisis. Action steps must include: 

  • A race equity analysis of all COVID-19 relief policy proposals and increased data collection across race and ethnicities during this public health crisis.
  • Swift movement toward decarceration and criminal legal systems reform. 
  • Sustained, adequate federal funding to meet communities’ needs for safety net benefits, workplace protections, a living wage, healthcare, clean air and water, affordable housing, and disaster relief. 
  • State-level affirmative policies to support working families, make affordable health care accessible to all, and protect housing/shelter.

As a nation, we must commit ourselves to justice and equity and finally create change that acknowledges and addresses the inequities that exist so that everyone, whoever they are, can have an equal opportunity to live and to thrive. 


The Shriver Center on Poverty Law fights for economic and racial justice. Over our 50-year history, we have secured hundreds of victories with and for people living in poverty in Illinois and across the country. Today, we litigate, shape policy, and train and convene multi-state networks of lawyers, community leaders, and activists nationwide. Together, we are building a future where all people have equal dignity, respect, and power under the law. Join the fight at povertylaw.org.

Learn more about the Shriver Center’s crisis advocacy and help amplify our efforts with lawmakers and officials during this pandemic.

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