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We can't breathe

What connects the most brazen forms of state violence against black people and the struggles of BAME coronavirus patients is systemic racism.

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I had been spending a fair amount of time reporting from the Caribbean when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005. Making my way to the Crescent City from Kingston, Jamaica, I arrived to see US troops stationed outside the Harrah’s casino, as mostly black people were plucked from trees and roofs, and bodies floated down main streets and started decomposing in houses.

It wasn’t just the levees that had been breached but the facade of a First World nation: one of the United States’ most celebrated cities appeared like Port-au-Prince, only with skyscrapers.

The hurricane had not created the inequalities of race and class so evident in the aftermath; it had simply laid them bare. When Katrina struck more than 44 per cent of New Orleans residents were functionally illiterate; close to one in three African Americans in Louisiana lived in poverty; rates of black infant mortality in the state were worse than infant mortality in Sri Lanka, and black male life expectancy was the same as that for men in Kyrgyzstan. African Americans were less likely to leave town before the storm came because they were less likely to have cars or cash. As thousands of people, most of them black, flocked to the convention centre, in search of shelter and sustenance, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, said, “We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist.”

Aftermath: Quintella Williams feeds her nine-day-old baby girl, Akea, in New Orleans as she awaits evacuation following Hurricane Katrina
Credit: Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Witnessing coronavirus disproportionately devastate minority communities, in Britain and elsewhere, feels a lot like being in New Orleans shortly after Katrina. The pandemic is exposing broader inequalities, systemic injustice and official denial.

At the outset the disparities were impressionistic and anecdotal. The roll call of the deceased suggested something more than a pattern. The first ten doctors to die from Covid-19 in the UK were black or Asian.

“At face value, it seems hard to see how this can be random,” the chair of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said on 10 April. “We have heard the virus does not discriminate between individuals but there’s no doubt there appears to be a manifest disproportionate severity of infection in BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] people and doctors. This has to be addressed – the government must act now.”

The snapshots appearing in the media merely confirmed what people were experiencing on the ground. Community activist and retired lecturer Hesketh Benoit, who is based in Haringey in north London, recalls chatting to reggae singer Delroy Washington, 67, one morning in late March; by the evening Washington was dead. “We’d been joking on the phone,” says Benoit. “He seemed fine. He had high blood pressure. But he’d been a martial arts expert for 40 years.”

Washington was the first person to die that Benoit knew. But before long a few others – elders who used to come and “big him up” while he ran courses for the young; a couple of guys who were security guards – also fell. “I remember thinking, hang on a minute. Something’s going on here.” Today he can count 28 people – all black – he knows of who have perished, of whom five or six were close friends. That’s about two a week. The youngest was only 42.

Statisticians and data journalists were soon able to quantify this lived experience. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), adjusting for age, black people are more than four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are more than three times as likely, and Indians more than twice as likely. BAME people account for 13.4 per cent of the population and 34 per cent of the patients admitted to intensive care units.

A Guardian data analysis in April revealed that a high proportion of BAME residents was found to be the strongest predictor of a high Covid-19 death rate: for every 10 per cent increase in ethnic minority residents there were 2.9 more Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people. (British Jews are also over-represented among the dead, although theories as to why that might be – which include religious practices among certain groups and an older-than-average population – are quite different from those relating to racial minorities.)

Carers have it worst. One in five of the NHS’s nursing and support staff are BAME, but they comprise two thirds of coronavirus deaths among such workers. In late April, Sky News discovered that 72 per cent of all health and social care staff who have died with Covid-19 were BAME.

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Two urgent questions emerge from these grim statistics. The first is: why should this be? At first glance, the answer appears straightforward. Put bluntly, minority communities are more likely to be poor, and poor people are, in a range of ways, more likely to be vulnerable.

For example, the ONS’s analysis of English Housing Survey data from between 2014 and 2017 found that Bangladeshi families were 15 times more likely to experience overcrowding than white British households, while Pakistanis were eight times more likely and black people six times more. All three groups were more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods and to experience higher unemployment, higher poverty and lower incomes than white people.

More than two decades after the 1999 Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence case – which found the police to be “institutionally racist” – minorities remain more likely to fall foul both of the law of the land and the law of probabilities. Wherever there is a pile of deprivation BAME people are over-represented at the bottom of it.

Material deprivation may not be the whole story. The ONS concludes that even when adjusting for deprivation, age and other factors, black people, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are almost twice as likely to die as white people.

There is speculation that this disparity may be explained genetically. Black people are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which would, it is said, make them more susceptible to succumb to the virus. Scientists at the DataLab at Oxford University have ruled that out. Others claim that a deficiency of vitamin D, common among some BAME communities, could be the cause. Thus far it remains only speculation, though the government started formally recommending vitamin D supplements in late April.

One need not dismiss these claims summarily to see there are sufficient grounds to question their logic. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are dying at a similarly disproportionate rate to black people but share little in the way of an ethnically related genetic relationship. Meanwhile, Indians, who until relatively recently were part of the same country as Bangladesh and Pakistan, have suffered far lower death rates. The one thing that black people, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis do have in common is that they are the poorest ethnic groups in the country, concentrated in the kind of jobs where you might contract the virus. Indians, meanwhile, tend to be wealthier.

Black death: coronavirus has disproportionately devastated minority communities
Credit: Sébastien Thibault

Elsewhere, the picture is similar. In Michigan, African Americans comprise 14 per cent of the population, 33 per cent of the reported infections and 40 per cent of the deaths. In Kansas they are seven times more likely to die of Covid than whites. In New York City Latinos have a higher death rate than African Americans; in Illinois they have a higher infection rate. In Arizona and New Mexico, Native Americans are becoming infected at a far greater rate than Latinos.

African Americans, Native Americans black Britons, Latinos and British people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin do not have culture or ethnically specific genetic material in common. They share a common experience of impoverishment, low pay and poor housing – and all the things that go with that, including ill health – that would make them susceptible to coronavirus.

There are further plausible explanations for the disparity in mortality rates. For historical reasons, related to migration, some groups are more likely to be concentrated in the health service, public transport and care work, while the modern economy has created significant concentrations of certain ethnicities in cleaning, taxi driving and security. For example, about 12.8 per cent of workers from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds are employed in public-facing transport jobs such as bus, coach and taxi driving, compared with 3.5 per cent of white people. These are all areas where workers are most at risk. Two black employees in London – a taxi driver and one transport worker – have now died after being deliberately spat on by people who, it is believed, had Covid- 19.

Though it adjusted for other factors, the ONS did not weight its findings to take into account the sectors where minorities are over-represented. “This is something we want to explore further in our next release,” a spokesperson said. “We see it as a crucial gap in the evidence to fill.”

Then there are a range of experiences that cannot be adjusted for in raw data, but certainly have an effect on behaviour and outcomes. A 2014 report by Roger Kline of Middlesex University for the NHS revealed BAME staff faced discriminatory treatment in recruitment, career development, membership on trust boards and disciplinary action. They were also more victimised if they were whistle-blowers, concluded the report, which was titled “The ‘snowy white peaks’ of the NHS”.

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Other surveys show black and Asian doctors are often treated as “outsiders” by their bosses and peers. They are significantly more likely than their white colleagues to be referred to the General Medical Council by their NHS employers for an investigation that could damage or end their careers. They are twice as likely not to raise concerns because of fears of recrimination, and complain of often feeling bullied and harassed. Health workers who are migrants may have no recourse to public funds if they are fired, and a disproportionate number are on zero-hours contracts. Add all this together and it becomes clear why they might be more compliant when put on certain shifts and less insistent in demanding personal protective equipment (PPE).

This is what systemic discrimination looks like. Not isolated incidents but a range of processes built on presumption, assumption, confidence, ignorance and exclusory institutional, personal and professional networks all buttressed by the dead weight of privilege.

Race is a construct. “Marble cake, crazy quilt and tutti-frutti,” the socio-cultural anthropologist Roger Sanjek once wrote, “are all better metaphors of human physical variability than is the x number of races of humankind.” But racism is real. It’s not the virus that discriminates; it is society.

The jury is out on whether more vitamin D would make a difference. But the case on whether more jobs, better pay and better housing would make a difference is closed. Inequality is killing us: being black is a pre-existing condition. “You already know enough,” wrote the late Sven Lindqvist in his book about European imperialism in Africa, Exterminate All the Brutes. “So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

These deaths are the collateral damage of British racism – the indirect consequence of decades of exclusion that have corralled black and Asian people into the kind of jobs, housing and health situations that would make us particularly vulnerable.

And yet, because our lives literally depend on it, we are forced to make the obvious explicit in the hope that some will cease to regard the obscene as inevitable.

As recently as December 2019 the rapper Stormzy was asked by an Italian journalist whether Britain was racist. “Definitely, 100 per cent,” he replied, before going on to explain “they don’t like to admit it”. As if to prove him right his comments were first distorted and then decried.

Less than two years after the Windrush scandal, the then Conservative chancellor Sajid Javid, who had previously said that if his Pakistani father migrated to Britain today he wouldn’t let him in, replied on Twitter: “100 per cent wrong. Britain is the most successful multiracial democracy in the world. And one of the most welcoming and tolerant.” So here we are – tolerated while dying for equality.

Do better: asked in 2019 if Britain was racist, the rapper Stormzy replied, “Definitely, 100 per cent”
Credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage

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The police lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May was a clear and brutal manifestation of racial violence. Obscenities such as this, caught on camera, with a clear villain sporting a badge and a number, have become a distressingly familiar occurrence that can distort the vast scope and scale of the racial challenge we all face. It is this incident that has driven tens of thousands to the streets, in occasional violent clashes with the police across the US, and brought people out in solidarity across Europe. But it is not the only thing keeping them there.

Covid-19 has demonstrated how racism can kill in far less dramatic ways and in far greater numbers without offering a morality play that might be shared on social media. When the police and politicians order the protesters to go back to their communities, there seems little recognition that that is where they were dying in such disproportionate numbers: that in the slogan “I can’t breathe” – among George Floyd’s last words as the police officer knelt on his neck – there is the connective tissue between the most brazen forms of state violence and the more banal tribulations of the ailing pandemic patient.

“Part of the reason these are systemic inequalities is that they transcend not only party, but time,” Stacey Abrams, an African-American politician from Georgia who is being vetted by Joe Biden as a potential vice-presidential running mate, told the New York Times. “We have to be very intentional about saying this is not about one moment or one murder – but the entire infrastructure of justice.”

One need not crudely transpose the US racial landscape on to Britain’s to see how the issues raised by Floyd’s killing could pollinate across the Atlantic and find a receptive home here. We do not have the US’s levels of gun ownership or its black middle class, its centuries-old black institutions or its degrees of segregation. Our inequalities operate differently. But they are recognisable. And most pertinently, where the virus is concerned, they keep operating. Across the Atlantic, the manner of collecting the data on coronavirus deaths differs – but the racial disparities are, at the very least, comparable. Since we didn’t get to this place by accident, we won’t get out of it by chance.

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The second question is what can we do about it? In the short term, the answer is fairly straightforward. Just as minorities are disproportionately affected by the disease, they are disproportionately assisted by any efforts to combat it. The more PPE there is for health workers and care workers, the more that people avoid public transport, and the more that testing and tracing is available, the more that racial and ethnic disparities will be reduced. Just as the government’s negligence has left us more exposed, government vigilance would make us considerably safer.

Tackling the racial inequalities emerging from the pandemic is not a sectional interest that will just benefit black people, any more than civil rights or community-sensitive policing does; in a public health crisis anything that helps a significant section of the population will help everyone.

It follows that in the medium term there should be a full, independent public inquiry into the racial disparity in the number of deaths. The government’s own review simply established what we already knew – the prevalence of ethnic disparities – even if its findings differed substantially from the ONS on which groups were most vulnerable. The review adjusted the death rate for deprivation, among other things, but made no plans to do anything about it and offered no analysis of why this deprivation might be.

It now plans a further review led by the equalities minister Liz Truss focusing on co-morbidities and obesity. Since conditions such as obesity and hypertension are also related to socio-economic factors the government could be accused of chasing its tail. One need not gainsay Truss’s conclusions to see the trajectory in this line of inquiry: to leave the system that produces certain health inequalities unscrutinised while shifting the burden of vulnerability on to the individual – their lifestyle, diet and general health regimen – as though those things existed beyond the influence of race and class.

A proper inquiry would not only seek to establish accountability, where that is appropriate, but also examine the pressures, decisions, contexts and environments that got us to such a calamitous state of affairs. Such an inquiry could do for systemic racism what the Macpherson report of 1999 did for institutional racism – map out the complex and at times invisible relationship between power and discrimination that often traps well-meaning people in oppressive structures and black people in desperate circumstances. A group of BAME public figures have already called on the government to produce a “Covid-19 race equality strategy”.

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None of this will heal the sick or bring back the dead. But it could help us develop a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how race is experienced and how racism operates. For the left it would help end the futile attempts to engage race and class separately. They do not exist in silos but are two interdependent forces, among many, and they are either understood in relation to each other or are misunderstood completely.

A public inquiry also offers the opportunity to cement human experience as part of politics, as opposed to something distinct and even antagonistic to it. The effort to relegate race, gender, sexual orientation, disability – the list goes on – to mere “identity politics” has ramped up of late. The disproportionate number of deaths among minorities, the spike in domestic violence during lockdown, the manner in which disabled people were marginalised at every step – all these factors exemplify the degree to which we have experienced this moment differently in material ways that are not, solely, about class. Acknowledging that doesn’t undermine solidarity, it informs it.

We will need this shift in understanding because there’s every chance that all of the disparities that made BAME communities so vulnerable are about to get worse. We are barely out of the last economic crisis, which affected black people (particularly women) more heavily, and are about to enter another economic depression.

It does not follow that because the pandemic has illustrated a range of inequalities and inequities the state will address them. Indeed, if anything the government will desperately try to exploit them to reshape the world in its own ideological image. It wouldn’t be the first time we demanded an overhaul of “the entire infrastructure of justice” and ended up with more injustice.

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This is precisely what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. There was a brief acknowledgement of how racism and poverty had shaped the identity of the victims. But before long, the cameras left and the corporate interests and the city establishment applied themselves to the task of reordering the city with great prejudice.

The public schools were auctioned off to private entities and public housing that wasn’t even damaged by the hurricane was torn down anyway. More than a third of the black people who left the city never came back. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” said Republican Congressman Richard Baker only two weeks after the storm. “We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

I returned to New Orleans a year after the hurricane to see how things had progressed. I was driving through the Lower Ninth ward with a resident, Antoinette K-Doe, in the hearse she bought to evacuate the city in. She kept stopping and staring at the dystopian sight of the neighbourhood where she grew up. Whole houses had been washed off their moorings and into the road; cars had been washed into the houses; trees had been blown on to cars. And there they were still. “We’re the richest country in the world,” K-Doe said. “I don’t understand how we can’t fix this up.”

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Gary Younge is a writer, broadcaster, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and former Guardian columnist. His books include The Speech: The Story Behind Dr Martin Luther King Jr's Dream and Another Day in the Death of America.

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe