COVID-19’s Racial Death Gap Was Predictable

Voters lining up to cast their ballots in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 7, 2020.
Voters lining up to cast their ballots in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 7, 2020. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Being black in Wisconsin is analogous to having your life cut short by six years. From 2014 to 2016, black men there lived, on average, 7.34 years less than white men; black women lived 5.61 years less than white women, which is 115 percent higher than the national racial life-expectancy gap for women. In both cases, much of the divide is attributable to health disparities. Deaths from heart disease or cancer accounted for the biggest share of the gap, according to a study published last year at BMC Public Health. They are the top two causes of death for black women, and two of the top three for black men. (For men, the top contributor was homicide.) Decades of racist policies shaped these discrepancies, ranging from health-care access to poverty rates. Analyses that account for disparities in wealth, income, home ownership, employment, education, incarceration, and infant mortality similarly rank the Badger State and its largest cities among the worst for black Americans; according to one 2014 analysis from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Wisconsin was the absolute worst state for black children.

Needless to say, it would be shocking if these disparities didn’t materialize during a pandemic. And although the data is preliminary and the novel coronavirus just weeks removed from its United States debut, it’s becoming more clear how race and COVID-19 intersect. Data from the few U.S. states that track race in their infection and death tallies — Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina — have demonstrated that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on black people. The reality in Wisconsin is mirrored elsewhere: Black Americans, in most instances, are statistically more likely than their nonblack counterparts to face the kind of chronic health problems and lack of access to adequate health care that can transform COVID-19 from manageable to fatal. (In many regions, they’re also heavily represented in jobs in health care, transportation, and food supply that have been deemed “essential,” forcing many to continue going to work during the pandemic and risking infection.)

The outcomes appear to be consistent across geographies. According to ProPublica, Michigan’s population is 14 percent black, but black Michiganders account for 40 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. The situation in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, is similarly stark. Of the 945 cases counted at the end of last week, half were black. Twenty-seven people who tested positive for COVID-19 had died there as of Friday; 81 percent of them were black. In Milwaukee proper, where black people make up 38 percent of the population, and the black-white life expectancy gap jumps to a staggering 14 years, the outbreak has been largely concentrated in the same black communities where recent events — like the 2016 shooting death of Sylville Smith — have shown that these neighborhoods are persistently under-resourced and over-policed.

Some elected officials have sounded the alarm. Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Elizabeth Warren were among five members of Congress who sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services last month, urging it to collect and publicize racial data on COVID-19 cases. So far, their request has gone unheeded — though President Trump has suggested that this information could be forthcoming. Either way, as with any number of public-health crises, the people who suffer most will be those whose lives had already been marked by marginalization and deprivation.

Black people in Wisconsin are no strangers to this dynamic. To most observers, the past decade of the state’s politics is best known for seething partisan rancor, embodied by the reign of Republican former Governor Scott Walker, whose war on unions briefly made him a GOP superstar. In 2014, the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis characterized Walker as giving voice to a decisive bloc of resentful Milwaukee County suburbanites and their counterparts in neighboring counties — an uncharacteristically conservative (for a metropolitan area its size) cohort of white people who inherited a territory bequeathed to them by 1960s white flight, along with many of its attendant racial hostilities. Their recent voting patterns have remained largely antagonistic toward Milwaukee city’s black population. Walker ran the board with Wisconsin’s white suburbs during a contested 2012 recall election, in part by making urban Milwaukee his whipping boy, using Willie Horton–esque attack ads to cast it as a cesspool of permissive misrule. And the right-wing agenda he pursued devastated black Milwaukeeans. By and large, the most vulnerable among them found themselves with less access to health care (Walker declined the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion) and fewer voting rights at the end of his tenure than they had when he took office.

Wisconsin’s recent political history is just a sliver of what’s made the state such a hostile environment for many black people. As elsewhere, the bigger story goes back several decades, and includes a greatest hits of the backlash that greeted millions of other black refugees from the South during the Great Migration: redlining, brutal law enforcement, mass-scale job loss fueled by deindustrialization, widespread political scapegoating, and disinvestment in social services, including health care. The bipartisan list of failures goes on. It’s also familiar to black residents of other northern and western cities, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Los Angeles.

But it’s the creation of Wisconsin’s particular racist environment that is on full display now. Tuesday saw a statewide election that was simultaneously shocking in its civic irresponsibility and all-too-familiar — marked by a U.S. Supreme Court–abetted deconstruction of the franchise and a callous disregard by officials for the well-being of vulnerable residents. The result was an in-person election during a pandemic, the only one of its kind in the U.S. during the month of April. Wisconsinites statewide braved the coronavirus to cast their ballots for a simple reason: Republicans, in defiance of the public-health consensus, wanted a low-turnout race to secure partisan advantage, and they got their way. Predictably, it was a clinic in anti-democracy.

In Milwaukee, a city of 600,000 residents, voters had to cast their ballots at one of merely five polling sites; a normal Election Day would’ve featured 180. Too many poll workers stayed home to avoid contagion to staff all the polling places. Now, with Republicans on the verge of a nigh-unbreakable choke hold on the state legislature and Supreme Court, the prospect of a continued politics of deprivation, affecting black people disproportionately, is all the more immediate. Barring the miraculous, hope for an expanded health-care apparatus would be lost for at least a decade. The very mechanisms by which black Wisconsinites became among the pandemic’s hardest hit would stand for the foreseeable future. To the extent that such disparities can be sourced to one overarching cause, the Badger State’s — as with much of America’s — are attributable to decades of policies that disadvantage black people, and we’re seeing that process now in real time. And it’s becoming clearer which COVID-19 deaths are caused by what those policies have wrought versus by the disease itself.

COVID-19, Unsurprisingly, Is Ravaging Black Communities