Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Deaths Present Argument for Reparations

By: Macy Eldredge

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

In this time of racial justice awareness and advocacy, reparations discourse has re-entered the mainstream. The economic reasons for this are apparent: Black Americans hold $6 of assets for every $100 owned by White Americans. Black Americans comprise 12-13% of the U.S. population, but hold less than 2% of the nation’s wealth. It would cost an estimated $10-$12 trillion to raise this groups share of the nation’s wealth to match its proportion in the population, at an average of about $800,000 per household. Wealth deprivation is extremely burdensome on black households even in the best of times. Since black households have a fraction of the wealth of white households, they are in a more precarious financial situation when crisis strikes. Notably, almost half of black Americans state they cannot pay some bills due to the pandemic, while only 26% of white Americans say the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has echoed disparities between black and white communities. Black Americans, already marginalized, are in a vulnerable position in their experience with the pandemic. Blacks are disproportionately affected by disparities in poverty, limited health care access, and common COVID-19 comorbidities. Unique social conditions to black communities in American have led those communities to be susceptible to the myth of black immunity to COVID-19, further threatening an at-risk population. Under this lens, the idea of a social program like reparations could work to ease the underlying racial subordination that has led to widespread health disparities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Black reparations are by no means a new idea in America. Reparations debates started not long after the end of the Civil War and persist to this day. However, as the reparations movement has evolved, the demand has shifted from promises like “40 acres and mule” to more focused approaches like money for unpaid labor and the development of government-funded projects. Some argue that current black Americans are not now “owed” any type of remedy for the “original sin” of slavery. Accordingly, legal claims for reparations have historically failed in court based on failure to show legal causation. Slavery and Jim Crow, according to the courts, are too attenuated from the harms to Blacks today. However, there have been some instances under tort law where statistical causation has been proved. An example of this can be seen in the cases resulting from the medical prescription of diethylstilbestrol (DES) to women, whose granddaughters have a higher statistical chance of being diagnosed with vaginal cancers and ADHD. The disparity in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in black communities could demonstrate a causal link similar to the link proven in the DES cases. Blacks are 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and 1.9 times more likely to die than Whites who contract COVID-19. The reasons for this are complex, but this disparity stems, at least in part, from racial discrimination. Medical disparities overall are a symptom of the disease of structural racism. The medical world “reflects the real world,” mirroring inequity in treatment of black people. Should a bill that addresses reparative justice fail once again—even when racial justice is at the forefront of political discourse—then a cause of action for reparative justice stands.

Posted in: Legal Comentary

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