Many studies over the past two years have shown that Latino, Black, and Native American people are more likely than white people to contract, become ill with, and die from COVID-19. Lots of news outlets have run with this information, making these “racial” differences pretty well-known.
Viewed at face value, lines like, “The age-adjusted COVID death rates are about twice as high among Black and Latino communities compared to whites,” which appeared in an NPR piece just last week, could lead some to conclude biological inferiority leaves darker-skinned people more vulnerable to this disease. But that isn’t true.
Do Racism and Classism Correlate to Health Disparities?
While it is true that people of color in the United States have worse outcomes from COVID-19, this disparity is not due to their “race,” to the simple fact that there are no scientifically quantifiable biologically distinct “races” of human beings. Rather, it appears that racism (the belief in different races of people) and classism (the belief that wealthy people are superior to the poor) are the real causes of these disparities.
Though there is plenty of overlap between racism and classism in the United States, a recent study showed that classism made racism worse, with poor people of color being nine times more predisposed to having bad health outcomes from SARS-COV-2 than their poor white counterparts, whereas wealthier people of color were three times more prone to having bad health outcomes than their white peers. Meanwhile, low-income whites have much worse health incomes than wealthier whites.
In nations that have worked to have less systemic racism and classism than the U.S. — Cuba, for instance — people from different “racial” and socioeconomic backgrounds now have identical health outcomes.
Put plainly, “race” can be seen as a myth, but racism (the belief in races of humans) is real. So too with social class and wealth; money and status are social constructs, but the belief that money is real and genetically superior people are entitled to have more of it, is deeply ingrained in our culture.
The Parallels Between Our Current Era and the 17th Century
In sociology, the Thomas Theorem tells us that a strongly-held belief need not be true in fact to be true in outcome. For instance, witches are not real, yet the people of 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts, killed women, girls, and even some men and dogs because they believed them to be witches. Whatever is causing the “racial” disparity in COVID infections, illness severity, and death among “people of color” in the United States is a sociological phenomenon, not a biological one — just like the Salem witch trials.
When the United States news media presents such disparities as due to “race” rather than racism, what they are doing, in effect, is equivalent to a 17th-century headline saying “witches are more likely to be hanged” when, in truth, it was “people thought to be witches by superstitious, ignorant, powerful people are more likely to be unjustly hanged.” In the former headline, the solution is to get rid of all the witches; in the latter, the solution is to educate the ignorant and, if that is impossible, make it more difficult for them to get away with harming others due to their ignorance.
Does Race Impact American People’s Lives?
This distinction between race and racism, or class and classism, might be confusing (or even threatening) to people who still believe race and class are real. The belief in “race” is so pervasive and integral to American culture that it is impossible to find a study that looks at how many Americans believe in race — likely because so few people realize it doesn’t exist and, therefore, would never think to ask people if they believe it. There are, by contrast, many studies looking at Americans’ views on how “race” impacts their lives. And the belief in the superiority of rich people is nowhere more apparent than in the recent election of Donald Trump, a wealthy man whose college grade point average was 1.2 and whose IQ is said to be 89 (the average is 100, and the average for presidents before him was 135) to the highest office in the land.
It is extremely important to distinguish between race and racism, from a scientific public health perspective, when examining “racial” health disparities. The solution to the problem will never be found in the myth of racial difference, just as the “witch problem” was not solved by those who believed witches were real. It lies only in uncovering, acknowledging, and remedying the root sociological causes of the health disparities.
People of Color Continue To Be at Risk
Even though people of color are probably overrepresented in Long COVID (the disease occurs in roughly half of all people who get COVID-19), they appear to be drastically undercounted. This is due to plausible systemic racism that creates an invalidating environment for people of color, whose health concerns, more often than not, are taken seriously by providers.
It isn’t just people of color who are hurt by these conflations, either. A recent analysis showed that white Americans, upon hearing about SARS-COV-2 disproportionately impacting communities of color, reacted by believing this meant they were genetically invulnerable to the disease. This encouraged an array of white people to comply less with protections such as masks, vaccinations, and social distancing, with white men leading this phenomenon among all Americans. Because of this, the disease is starting to catch up in white communities. Where the Black community was three times more likely to die of COVID in 2020, by 2021, the gap had narrowed to just 1.5.