COVID-19 is killing black Americans with horrifying precision. Black Americans get the disease at a higher rate than white people do. Retirement homes with black residents become outbreak clusters. Black people die of COVID-19 at a higher rate than white people do—and that rate is even higher than it may seem, according to a study released last week by Yale University’s Cary P. Gross and co-authors. When you account for age—black people are on average younger than white people, and should therefore be expected to die at a lower rate, not a higher one—black mortality is 3.57 times white mortality.
A multiplier of 3.57 is a national shame. After all, the virus knows no race or nationality; it can’t peek at your driver’s license or census form to check whether you are black. Society checks for it, and provides the discrimination on the virus’s behalf. The effects of that discrimination are found in the morgues.
Outrage is warranted. But outrage unaccompanied by analysis is a danger in itself.
Earlier this month, The New England Journal of Medicine published a short article on America’s COVID-19 racial death gap by Merlin Chowkwanyun, a medical historian at Columbia University, and Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political scientist and venerable voice of the labor left at the University of Pennsylvania. They suggested that highlighting the existence of racial disparities without explaining their cause could itself encourage racist beliefs. “Disparity figures without explanatory context can perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities,” they wrote. If all we know is that disparities exist, then prepare for racist explanations to rush in to fill the gap.