Racism and COVID-19: Black Lives Don’t Matter to the Capitalists

The horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia is a reminder of the deep-seated institutional and interpersonal racism that permeates American society—and is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the starkest ways in which the ugly face of capitalism has been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been in the racial disparity of its victims—those lost to the virus, those now being brutalized by the racist police enforcement of social distancing measures, and those being sacrificed every day as the capitalists force the economy to reopen. Capitalism’s concentration of social harms in racially oppressed populations is a normal part of capitalism’s functioning, and this harm can only be eliminated by cutting the entire system off at the root.

According to an analysis of the statistics that have been released by 38 states so far, the mortality rate for black victims of COVID-19 has been more than double the rate for white victims. The study, conducted by APM research lab, pointed out that, “If black Americans had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, about 9,000 of the nearly 15,000 black residents who have died in these states would still be alive.”

Behind this national average, some areas have seen even more extreme disparities, including Wisconsin and Kansas, where black residents are seven times more likely to die from the virus than whites. In Washington, DC the death rate is six times higher; in Missouri and Michigan, it is five times higher.

Statistics from APM Research Lab

However, COVID-19 is not the underlying cause of this concentration of deaths. Rather, the virus has merely revealed the inequality and inhumanity of a system that puts profits before all else.

As in every crisis, the US ruling class has made it clear that the workers and bosses do not have interests in common. Instead, the working class is once again being set up to shoulder the worst of the health and social costs of the pandemic. In real terms, this means stabilizing the flow of profits for the rich. As is also always the case, non-white workers are being forced to bear the most onerous costs of this pandemic.

The workers are not cannon fodder!

Amid the ongoing health disaster, a section of the US ruling class have begun crying for the economy to reopen. Here too, low-income workers, and particularly non-white workers, are considered cannon fodder to reinflate asset markets for the capitalists. For those at the top, reopening the economy doesn’t actually mean that they themselves will resume life as usual—but that they expect the low-wage workers who create their profits to do so. In the meantime, the ruling class operatives running the state are taking steps to limit any liability to business owners from the harms that will predictably result.

Trump is now using the Defense Production Act to force meat packing plants to re-open, despite widespread outbreaks of the virus among the vulnerable workers in this industry—an industry where workers literally work shoulder to shoulder. This change took effect after large-scale meat producer Tyson Foods, Inc. promoted ads nationwide stoking concerns about the US food supply. While concerns about food supply are well founded, the capitalist class is only interested in leveraging panic to maximize profits—all on the backs of vulnerable workers.

Low-income workers, and particularly non-white workers, are considered cannon fodder to reinflate asset markets for the capitalists. / Image: Maarten van den Heuvel via Pexels

It is relevant to note that huge sections of the meatpacking workforce are immigrants, and that these populations are currently being ravaged by the pandemic. These workers’ migrant status makes it difficult to fight back against the bosses’ calls to return to unsafe workplaces, or to benefit from the meager stimulus measures Trump’s government has implemented.

At first glance, the impulse to reopen businesses seems suicidal. But the contradictions here unravel when considering the class interests of the segment of society making these demands. The institutionalization of white supremacy within US capitalism has cultivated a population of racially oppressed workers, and it is these workers who Trump and the rest of the ruling class are willing to sacrifice. The violence of US imperialism, long applied against workers in the poor countries, also has an inward focus.

Marxists have for years predicted an economic crisis that would dwarf 2008, and coronavirus provided the nudge to trigger the inevitable downturn. The foundations for the current crisis were laid long before the virus appeared, with the wealth recovered since the last recession accruing almost entirely to the capitalists, not to workers. Decades of austerity, neglect, and the profit-driven healthcare system have left US workers especially vulnerable. This has led to the systematic cutting of health services in low-income neighborhoods and city districts, and the outright closure of inner-city hospitals like Hahnemann in Philadelphia, which primarily served black and Latino residents.

Institutional racism

Non-white patients in the US have long faced racist treatment while it comes to medical care, either through discrimination at the point of service, biases built into insurance algorithms, or through subtler structural barriers like austerity and funding cuts to health care systems in low-income areas. This has led to reductions in life span and an increase in death rates resulting from normal life events such as childbirth. Structural racism in US healthcare contributes to black women dying in childbirth at more than three times the rate of white women.

Health outcomes are further determined by where you live. The EPA estimates that “70% of black people in the US live in counties where pollution levels exceed federal standards.” For example, the Detroit area, which has seen some of the highest death rates in the country outside of New York City, has been home to the country’s largest garbage incinerator since the 1980s, with trash brought from across the Midwest and even Canada to be burned. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Detroit area was already a hotspot of respiratory diseases like asthma. 87% of the residents living within a mile of the incinerator were black.

Black nurse and baby
Structural racism in US healthcare contributes to black women dying in childbirth at more than three times the rate of white women. / Image: U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Brooke Betit/Released

This is far from the only crisis confronting working-class residents of Michigan, where Great Depression levels of unemployment are already a reality: 25% of the state’s workforce has already been laid off. This is compounded by a water crisis that has hammered cities like Flint and Detroit for years, where even today thousands are without running water.

Thus, the profit-driven US healthcare system is primed to ensure that black people suffer an enormous proportion of these costs. In addition to deaths inflicted directly by COVID-19, deaths due to other causes will rise due to overwhelmed medical capacity and basic lack of access.

The ramifications of decades of racially differential attacks on working conditions are now being laid bare. For many salaried professionals working for firms with cash on hand to make payroll, the quarantine periods are inconvenient, but survivable. Their productivity may be limited somewhat, but otherwise, their working conditions and finances are stable for the time being. But for millions of “essential workers,” work continues in a world infected by the virus, with little or nothing in savings to handle any shocks to their income, forced to incur high levels of risk to feed and house their families.

The dilemma presented to many low-income workers these days is to either return to work, or to offer their resignations. The upside of this, from the perspective of the ruling class, is that most workers who resign from jobs that are technically still available, will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. This spares the state the hassle and expense of having to pay out benefits.

Income and racial disparities

The large-scale trend of wealth concentration in the US is exaggerated among non-white workers. For black and Latino workers in particular, median savings wiped out during the last recessions in 2001 and 2008 have never recovered, and continue to degrade.

From access to safe housing where social distancing can be responsibly practiced, to access to healthcare, to the ability to stay home even as businesses are recklessly flung open, every tool available to workers to try to survive this crisis has been systematically stripped from the country’s most oppressed layers. The dynamics that have operated for decades to entrench working-class poverty, now threaten to carve up working class families even further—all to protect profits.

It is no accident that the largest concentrations of COVID-19 infection in the country continue to emerge where there are dense concentrations of people who have been systematically stomped on by capitalism. Prisons throughout the country are facing catastrophic death rates from the pandemic, with Rikers Island in New York playing host to what may be the highest rate of infection on the planet.

Black inmates at Orleans jail
Prisons throughout the country are facing catastrophic death rates from the pandemic. / Image: Bart Everson, Flickr

In the Navajo Nation in the US Southwest, the largest land area still controlled by Indigenous peoples within the borders of the US, roughly 350,000 people live in an area larger than West Virginia, with access to healthcare and potable water both drastically restricted, and many residents traveling miles to get clean water. These conditions have now resulted in the third-highest infection rate in the country—after New York and New Jersey—with a death toll higher than many US states combined.

Looking at still more neglected populations, The Economist now predicts that the highest death tolls in the US are likely to be in the American South. This proverbial powder keg is home to many of the largest concentrations of black workers in the country.

In the vast non-urban areas of the country, where 119 hospitals and clinics have been shut down over the last decade, unreasonable travel times to access healthcare are part of life for the rural poor. In the vast American interior, millions of people must drive hours to their nearest hospital—if they can afford to access a car. For pandemic sufferers requiring ventilator equipment to survive, these distances can mean a death sentence.

Malcolm X famously said that “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” COVID-19 has again revealed the ugly underbelly of a system based on private property of the means of production. Long accustomed to mercilessly exploiting the workers of the world, the American capitalists, now facing deep crisis, are renewing their focus on squeezing every last cent—and breath—from the most oppressed workers within their borders. Capitalism can only continue to iterate its essential violence on increasingly horrifying scales—and only the united working class can stop it in its tracks.

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