By Michael Atalla
Minorities, especially African-Americans in metropolitan areas, are being infected with and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts.
This phenomenon is occurring in many large cities like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. This piece focuses on Chicago — arguably the most segregated city in all of America. Comparing two zip codes within Chicago city limits with similar population sizes but divergent racial composition, the disparities are striking.
The 60657 neighborhood of Chicago is known as Lakeview. According to U.S. Census data, its population size is 70,052 and the median household income is $92,295. It is 86.18% white.
The 60620 zip code, a community known as Auburn Gresham, has a population size of 68,096 and a median household income of $35,890. It is 96.25% black.
The disparities seen above stem directly from segregation and the United States’ failure to mitigate its lasting effects.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under his New Deal program, created the Public Works Administration (PWA), which was designed in part to build public housing. While some houses were built for black families, most were built for white middle- and lower-class families.
Shortly after, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created. The organization played an essential role in constructing suburban America. Its main job was to subsidize developers planning to mass-produce housing developments on the outskirts of America’s cities.
However, the FHA only did so if these developers refused to sell homes to African-Americans. The agency also declined to insure mortgages in predominantly black neighborhoods. The effects of the PWA and FHA were simple: a city’s black population often was centralized within a poorly kept inner-city decimated by poverty, while the white population lived in affluent suburbs.
Up until the Shelley v. Kraemer decision in 1948, racially restrictive covenants were publicly enforced by states.
While our high school U.S. history classes teach us that Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 eliminated segregation, the reality is that segregation did not simply cease to exist because the separate but equal doctrine was deemed unconstitutional. In fact, discrimination continued through other forms of regulation and social organization. The differences between Lakeview and Auburn Gresham in 2020 epitomize this.
By default, the residents of the Auburn Gresham community are more exposed to the virus than are residents of Lakeview — which in turn contributes to their increased number of infections. Often, those of higher socio-economic status, excluding those in the medical profession, are not considered essential workers and are able work from home. Per U.S. Census data, if we were to assume that every individual within the zip code considered an “essential worker” continues their normal work schedule, roughly 10,453 residents of Lakeview and 18,203 residents of Auburn Gresham are physically going to work. Likewise, lower-income individuals tend to live in houses with more people and in more densely populated communities. Now, not only are these people increasing their chances of getting infected, but they are also likely to infect more individuals in turn.
In addition to higher numbers of infections among black Chicagoans, they are also six times more likely to die from coronavirus than white Chicagoans. One reason for this is that black Chicagoans have higher levels of chronic diseases, and preexisting conditions are one of the main risk factors for mortality from COVID-19. And these preexisting conditions are, in part, a result of lasting discriminatory features of our society.
For example, Chicago zoning laws placed a majority of the pollution-causing factories on the south side of the city. Unsurprisingly, this also happens to be where most of the City’s black population reside. This high level of pollution decreases the air quality of the surrounding neighborhoods.
In Lakeview, 107 residents were diagnosed with lung and bronchial cancer between 2012 and 2016. In Auburn Gresham, that number was 363. Further, the rate of asthma hospitalizations for those between the ages of 5 and 64 in 2011 was 7.1 for every 10,000 people in Lakeview but 42.1 for every 10,000 people in Auburn Gresham. U.S. Census Data shows that in Lakeview, roughly 2,421 people are uninsured whereas roughly 6,656 people are uninsured in Auburn Gresham.
Additionally, there is a correlation between level of income and rates of obesity. Healthy, nutritious foods tend to be more expensive, whereas calorically dense, fattening foods tend to be cheaper. What this means is a lack of a true choice as to what foods one is able to buy on a restricted income. In Lakeview, 873 households receive government food stamps, whereas 7,831 do in Auburn Gresham. In a survey of 14,600 Lakeview residents and 13,100 Auburn Gresham residents over the age of 18, 17.8% of Lakeview residents had a BMI over 30 (which is considered obese); in Auburn Gresham, this percentage was more than double: 41.2% had a BMI over 30. For reference, a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9.
Large cities in America suffer from a lasting racial and socioeconomic divide, which further contributes to the systemic inequality faced by our nation’s most vulnerable. And what this means in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is that those who have been systematically disadvantaged suffer far more than those who haven’t.
While the novel coronavirus is colorblind, it permeates a country that historically has been conscious of color, and its effects mirror these racial and socioeconomic disparities.
Mike Atalla is a student at Harvard Law School. His research interests center on the correlation between food and one’s health. More specifically how to increase access to healthy foods for those who may lack it and how to better inform the public on the foods they are consuming. Prior to coming to law school, Mike worked for the New York CIty Council as a constituent service and legislative matter representative. He attended the University of Virginia graduating with a BA in Government.