Social Inequity is Not Just A Pandemic Problem

After two months of quarantine we are now at a turning point in which local, state and national officials are fully engaged in planning efforts to reopen their respective communities.  In coming together leaders and other constituents are developing plans that lay the groundwork for reopening the economy and getting people back to their normal lives. But what did “normal” look like before the pandemic?

Prior to the pandemic there was an influx of societal issues, all of which disproportionately affect black, indigenous and people of color. From growing rates of food insecurity, to lack of educational resources, insufficient park space, high rates of homelessness, etc. – the reality is that what was considered “normal” was never an acceptable standard to begin with.

If COVID is the Equalizer, Institutions are the Discriminators

While the virus does not discriminate, institutions of power do. In the U.S., the poverty rate was at 11.8% in 2018, of which, Native American, Black and Latino communities ranked the highest of all racial groups in the U.S. This is a resulting combination of social inequities particularly among communities of color that has had devastating effects exacerbated by the pandemic.

Wages. As we have seen through this crisis, low-wage workers are at the frontline providing essential services like groceries and deliveries. But, despite providing critical services, many continue to be paid at the same minimum wage rate with little to no benefits. Recent data demonstrates that the majority of this workforce is comprised of Black and Latino communities, making them more vulnerable to the virus and social pressures like working to make ends meet. This is in stark contrast to their white counterparts who are more likely to work in white-collar roles that provide significantly higher wages, stable benefits, retirement plans and have the flexibility of working from home and staying safe during this time.

Availability of public resources and benefits.  While state and local agencies have rushed to increase public benefits during this time, it is still not enough to reach all families who are struggling. With recent developments such as public charge, many immigrant families are hesitant to apply for benefits that can jeopardize applications for citizenship. The widespread fear of deportation and loss of family members makes it even more difficult for those who already struggle with food insecurity and lack of healthcare to obtain the resources they need. Beyond discrimination, there are also digital and language barriers that prohibit non-English speakers and families with little to no internet access at home from applying for benefits.

Criminalization of communities of color. Historically, Black and Latino communities experience higher rates of incarceration over their white counterparts placing communities of color at a higher risk and social disadvantage. A criminal record reduces an inmate’s ability to get a job upon release and in more dire circumstances like we are seeing with COVID, inmates are more likely to contract a disease, placing their lives at risk. It is discrimination in everyday situations that has led to higher incarceration rates of Blacks and Latinos. This is most evident in charges of non-violent offenses like possession of marijuana, an industry that has most recently been legalized and commercialized by white institutions.  Even in the past few weeks, we have seen a distinct contrast in how black neighborhoods are reprimanded for disobeying stay at home orders while protestors from white communities are provided the opportunity to do so without legal consequences.

The Case for Going Against “Normal”

It is evident that the standard for “normal” prior to COVID was maintaining a status quo, one that favors and enables white communities to thrive while black, indigenous, and communities of color continue to struggle. In going back to “normal”, we risk the return to a society that prevents communities of color from accessing the resources they need for survival. At this point in time, leaders across the nation have a unique opportunity to enhance or innovate social programs and benefits that support communities most at need.

This is the time for community-based organizations to connect with residents to learn more about their current struggles and either provide or connect them with the resources they need. This is the time for public institutions to eliminate the red-tape and barriers that diminish the flow of resources when people need them most. This is the time to have the difficult conversations with our leaders and partners as to who is truly bearing the brunt of the pandemic and serve as advocates to dismantle racist and discriminatory policies and programs. What we decide to do, where we decide to allocate funding and who we decide to support will demonstrate whether or not we are truly committed to serving the most vulnerable.

This is the time to put communities of color, frontline workers and the well-being of our communities first — because their livelihood depends on it.