The Virus + Black = Double Jeopardy

To my white friends:  In the past ten days or so, as my family and I see COVID-19 looming and disrupting our lives, I had set aside my “work” on race/racism.  That is a privilege I have as a white person.  No doubt you too are coping with this crisis.  Still, I invite you to join me in recognizing how challenges are multiplied for our Black sisters and brothers now.

First, consider a couple of racist narratives floating on the airwaves:

“This is the Chinese virus.  They did this to us!”

Challenges like the virus spark reactive conjectures, intended to pin blame somewhere, to avoid facing our own complicity in a situation.  This racist meme was blasted by Gail Christopher, Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.  She termed it nothing less than “a flagrant attempt to shift blame and deflect attention from a disjointed and inadequate official response.”  Historically, racial and ethnic groups have been frequent receptors for this kind of deflection.

Or this:  “Black people are immune to the virus.”

Actor Idris Elba, a Black man, tested positive for the virus.  He struck back against this myth of immunity, perpetrated often with mocking humor.  Alarmed that Black people themselves would buy into this myth and be dismissive about the virus, he said, “That is the quickest way to get more Black people killed!”  The myth, rooted in racist lore, has been uniformly disputed by numerous epidemiologists and bioethicists.  But to the extent that Black people themselves have bought into the myth, they are more vulnerable.

(See this article about the disastrous impact of this myth at the time of the yellow fever.)

Second, consider how decisions are made, how resources are allocated, and how whiteness and wealth play into that:

Early criticism targeted the Utah Jazz, because all of their players were tested at a time when testing was very limited.  Most of the Jazz players are Black.  The owner of the team however, Gail Miller, is white. It was her power and wealth that led to the preferential treatment.  She was protecting her players, her “assets” if you will, and the combination of her wealth and whiteness got her what she wanted.  So pay attention to how race and wealth interact to steer resources toward white and wealthy people as this crisis unfolds.

And as companies lay off and reallocate people, consider that the last-in-first-out method traditionally disadvantages People of Color who often have the least seniority.  This was evident in the recent layoffs sparked by the severe budget crisis at the Rochester City School District.  Racial bias is baked into the rules and contracts.

(See more in the resources below about the impact of racial wealth inequality in this crisis.)

Third, consider health vulnerability according to race:

John Strazzabosco’s excellent contribution in the last post gave some evidence of the disparity in life expectancy between races, and the high incidence of particular diseases among Black people.  Asthma is an especially serious compromising factor here, since the Coronavirus is a respiratory virus.  Black people suffer from asthma at a rate 45 percent higher than that of white people.  John’s article also clearly demonstrates that our Black sisters and brothers have generally compromised immune systems compared to us, much of that stemming from the grinding impact of racism in their everyday lives.  They are far more at risk.  How will this impact rates of infection?

Another aspect of health vulnerability is bias in the health care system.  Consider this jarring statement from Dr. Benjamin Rush:   “…most of the nation’s medical facilities use different standards for measuring lung and kidney function for black patients versus others…This in turn means that Black patients must register more significant breathing difficulties….before the most serious medical interventions are offered.”  Will these biased standards be used in COVID-19 testing and treatment?

There is a sad irony here:  For Black people who are not living in poverty their wealth will not protect them from these heightened health risks.

Fourth, consider the advice we’ve been given to avoid being infected:

“Social distancing” – what an intriguing concept!  Seems quite doable for me and most of my family and most of the white people I know.  We all seem to be living in single-family homes, on plots of land maybe one-quarter of an acre on up.  We can work from home with our laptops and extra space, and the kids can keep up with schoolwork on their personal computers in their personal rooms.  We’re able to purchase what we need to stock up on groceries and supplies.  If one store is out, we drive easily to any one of several others in our area.

Now think about much of the Black community in Rochester:   How do you “social distance” in a culture that is generally more expressive and demonstrative?  Through historic practices of redlining, gentrification and urban renewal, they are jammed into the 3rd and 7th wards of the City.  How does distancing work when living with two or three or four other families in what was originally designed as a single-family home, situated maybe 10 or 20 feet from neighbors?  How can your children keep up with school when the one computer you own is ancient and you can’t afford internet service?  Consider how to feed your family when the single decent-sized grocery store in your neighborhood has had shelves emptied, and the little convenience stores specialize in junk food at exorbitant prices.


So where to go with all this?  I have questions more than answers:

  • How can I avoid taking advantage of my race and wealth privileges in an unfair way?
  • How can I spot and call out the subtle, insidious privileges that benefit me and my family?
  • How can I be a part of easing the extraordinary burden this pandemic is placing on my Black brothers and sister?
  • How can I share what I’ve acquired or hoarded to ride out this virus?
  • What Black-led organizations are responding to this crisis, and in what ways can I support those efforts – in person, financially?


Please reply below with your own responses to these questions, particularly with options for being part of the solution to the inevitable racial inequities that will be exacerbated by this virus.  Check back in here.  Make this a forum for exchanging ways to counteract the racial bias in the systems.



“Coronavirus Outbreak Revives Dangerous Race Myths and Pseudoscience”  NBC News report.

“For Urban Poor, the Coronavirus Complicates Existing Health Risks”  New York Times

“The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Racial Wealth Gap”  Center for American Progress and Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

“Why You Should Stop Joking That Black People Are Immune to Coronavirus”  Brenton Mock in Citylab.

“Should Black People Be Worried About Coronavirus?”  John Sims, David A. Love, The Grio

5 thoughts on “The Virus + Black = Double Jeopardy”

  1. Thank you for this timely article, Frank. I can recognize my white privilege through many of the questions, specifically location of my home in a subdivision in a rural setting with plenty of space and areas for hiking and exercise while still with transportation to anywhere at anytime. We are supporting the Center for Youths program for homeless youth or youth with unstable housing, majority black or minority. Below is the need as identified by Elaine Spaull:
    The Center’s little Nook serves more than 65 youth each week, those not in our residential programs and those not supported by our generous friends at Food Link. These are such difficult and unusual times.. here is a sample list.

    Non perishables – kid food!! – peanut butter and jelly, cereal, spaghetti-os, chicken rice and chicken noodle soups, Vienna sausages, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, canned fruits

    Let us know if you can help by dropping food off to our 905 Monroe Avenue office.
    Our staff is on site from 9 am – 9 pm this week and will have a presence for as long as needed.


  2. Thanks, Frank …. the intersectionality of emergencies like this with institutional racism more than compounds the plight and trauma for many of our Black brothers and sisters. Also, a Fr. Richard Rohr reflection this week speaks similarly to what you have portrayed.
    Please keep up your great work and be/stay well!



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