This week’s COVID-19 and Race Commentary looks at transformative housing policy in the pandemic era, the crisis in meatpacking plants, what reopening states means for civil rights and equity, and more of the latest news about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and strategies for an equitable recovery.
Issue No. 4, May 6, 2020
Centering Racial Equity in Housing
By Michael McAfee and Chris Schildt
Millions of people are facing another rent bill, with no income or relief from our inadequate safety net programs. COVID-19 didn’t create America’s housing mess. Market failures have been hurting low-income people and people of color for years. But the economic and health emergencies brought on by the pandemic have changed the equation. People already struggling to make ends meet now face a nearly impossible decision: either pay their rent or buy the food and medicine needed to survive. Many refuse to accept these terms. Instead, people are protesting and demanding a better future. If the nation is to come out of this crisis stronger and more resilient, we need to enact a different reality.
That starts with reimagining housing not as a commodity that enriches investors, but as an essential public good.
Even before the pandemic, nearly 40 million US households were spending more than they could afford on housing, and half a million people were unhoused. Less than 1 percent of housing is both affordable and accessible to people living with disabilities. Women of color suffer the highest eviction rates and cost burden, and Black and Indigenous people experience the highest rates of homelessness.
Housing insecurity of this depth creates chronic health disparities, exacerbating hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions that contribute to the alarmingly high COVID-19 death rates in communities of color. The situation is made worse by pervasive economic fragility: 60 percent of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency.
This housing crisis did not happen by accident. It is a direct consequence of decisions made by policymakers and corporate interests determined to profit from housing rather than house people, and by a government that has failed to build affordable housing that meets demand.
The result of this system was made painfully clear in the 2008 foreclosure crisis, which wiped out trillions of dollars of generational wealth, particularly in Black and Latinx communities. Millions of people lost their homes, which private equity investors acquired en masse. Then these investors rented the homes back to families for exorbitant rents, failed to do necessary maintenance and repairs, and eventually evicted tenants and resold the homes for massive profits. This was not a new story, but another chapter in a long playbook of dispossession of land and wealth for people of color and Indigenous communities. We’ve had government-sanctioned theft through generations.
The housing crisis is again in the national spotlight. In April, over 30 percent of renters were late on rent; in May, we can expect that number to be higher. But now we can decide to act differently. We must center racial equity and in doing so, serve the people most in need. Here’s how:
- Alleviate the immediate financial burden. That means halting evictions and foreclosures, and providing emergency housing for everyone who doesn’t have a home, including people experiencing homelessness, being released from incarceration and detention, or facing domestic violence. Over 35 states and 150 local municipalities — as well as the federal government — have taken some action to limit evictions during this crisis. Some of the stronger protections have passed in Massachusetts and Alameda County, California. Comprehensive moratoriums should be expanded to cover all tenants across the country and paired with the right to counsel for the many tenants who are still facing eviction despite local and federal laws. While many of these measures protect some renters and homeowners from immediately losing their homes due to the inability to pay rent, there will be a flood of evictions once the moratoriums are lifted. The best way to stop this is for the government to take the unprecedented and necessary step to forgive unpaid rent and mortgages; it is the only way to reach the scope and scale that we need. Additionally, homeowners and mom-and-pop landlords who have used investing in real estate as a vehicle to financial security and wealth must be made whole, while prohibiting large corporate landlords from profiting from this crisis.
- Change the rules of the game. Protect our affordable housing stock. Large for-profit investors must not be allowed to buy distressed homes and buildings in neighborhoods where venture and speculative capital has always preyed — communities of color where frontline workers disproportionately live. The same corporations that scooped up millions of homes in the last recession are poised to swoop in again and profit off of our pain. This is the market doing what it will naturally do if left unchecked. We must protect the nonprofits, owners of deed-restricted affordable rental units, and the small landlords in our communities who are providing affordable housing to make sure they have the operating support they need, and that they can expand in this moment to meet the demand for housing that is affordable. Large for-profit investors should be prohibited from purchasing homes and apartment buildings. Instead, we can use policies that give tenants, nonprofits, and local governments the first opportunity to purchase the buildings, coupled with acquisition funds, to make these properties permanently affordable.
- Reimagine housing as a public good and critical infrastructure, not a commodity. Racialized capitalism has designed our housing system, and a network of laws and regulations reinforces this system. We must change the legal and regulatory framework that undergirds our housing policy so that it centers racial equity. Our democracy is an unfinished experiment. We must continue the work to perfect it. This means we cannot be wedded to a housing system that hasn’t served us well. To reimagine housing as a public good, we cannot leave it to the market to dictate where people can live, how much they’ll pay, and if they can access opportunity. Instead, we must be willing to do the work to make safe, healthy, and affordable housing a human right.
Turning this vision into a reality requires a shift in the national mindset. We have always put the premium on property, but human value must have primacy. Our emergency response and recovery must take us toward our equity goals, not return us to a status quo that has been failing our people. This is why PolicyLink joined with some of the most transformative grassroots organizing networks in the country in creating Our Homes, Our Health, our vision for a housing response and recovery plan that centers racial equity and transforms our system. And this is why we support HR 6515, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, and ask you to join us in support by signing on to the bill and asking your legislators to support. You can read more on the three broad actions to center racial equity in housing here.
Michael McAfee is President and CEO of PolicyLink. Chris Schildt is a Senior Associate at PolicyLink.
News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web
As more COVID-19 data are broken down by race, geography, and other factors, it’s becoming clearer who’s getting sick, who’s dying, and why. The earliest known cases in the US were linked to international travel and corporate gatherings, and that, coupled with an egregious lack of testing, created a distorted picture of the spread of the coronavirus. The New York Times map of cases, updated daily, shows the biggest clusters are not among well-heeled business executives or outsiders, but in prisons, nursing homes, and meatpacking plants.
The crisis in the meat industry continues to get worse even as the industry, abetted by some governors, have withheld details about outbreaks and President Trump has ordered plants to stay open. The CDC reported that nearly 5,000 meat industry workers have contracted COVID-19 and 20 have died. Given the limited testing and suppression of information, that’s almost surely an undercount, and it doesn’t include infections among the families and other close contacts of the workers. More than 850 workers at a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota were infected and nearly 900 workers at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Indiana, according to the AP. Both planned to resume "limited production" this week after brief shutdowns, while other plants across the country close temporarily to deal with severe outbreaks.
Meat plants are powered by refugees from Africa and Asia and immigrants from Latin America. That’s why the industry-wide crisis is resulting in some wildly unequal COVID-19 case counts. In South Dakota, where 90 percent of the population is White, almost 70 percent of COVID-19 cases are people of color. The podcast The Daily interviews Achut Deng, a Sudanese worker for Smithfield who survived civil war and malaria only to find her life and livelihood threatened anew.
Tiny Moore County, Texas, with 22,000 residents, half of them Latinx, has that state’s highest reported rate of COVID-19. It’s linked to an outbreak at a sprawling JBS Beef plant with 3,000 workers in Cactus, a city with a population of 3,200. The Texas Tribune describes the plight of workers who have no choice but to show up on crowded factory floors every day. “The people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all. Politically, there's hardly anyone like them to speak with their voice among the region's nearly all-White slate of elected officials. Socially, they are largely invisible, a tide of anonymous workers streaming to and from the plant each day. And economically, they are simply labor.” Mother Jones tells a similar story at a JBS meat plant in Greeley, Colorado, where 30 languages are spoken among 6,000 workers.
Would the president order these plants to keep running if the workers were White? “Sadly, to this president, immigrant labor is clearly disposable — and always useful for political gain,” Raul Reyes writes in a CNN opinion piece.
More than a century ago, writer Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the appalling conditions in meatpacking plants led to federal food safety laws. It remains to be seen whether the current crisis gives rise to robust labor organizing, stronger worker protections, or even a sustained public outcry. But some workers are beginning to speak out. About 50 workers at a Smithfield Foods plant in Nebraska briefly walked off the job last week to protest plans to keep open the facility despite dozens of COVID-19 cases.
The turmoil in the meat industry underscores the critical role that immigrants play in the nation’s food supply chain — and in all essential work. Far from threatening American jobs, immigrants are keeping the economy running during the pandemic. Overall, 3.8 million immigrants work in the food sector, accounting for more than 20 percent of those who grow and pick produce, process meat and seafood, stock grocery shelves, and deliver take-out to customers’ doors, a New American Economy Research Fund analysis finds.
Immigrants also represent 29 percent of the nation’s physicians and 38 percent of home health aides, the news site Rational Middle reports. Among first responders almost 30,000 are immigrants protected, all too precariously, by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Tens of thousands of immigrant physicians, many of them on the front lines of COVID-19 care, struggle with visa worries, says The Hospitalist. They have been waiting for years, and some for decades, for permanent residency or citizenship. If they fall ill from the virus or die while their applications linger, their families may face deportation.
Stat reports on the roughly 150,000 Filipino nurses in the US. They account for nearly 20 percent of nurses in California, and about 4 percent nationwide. Many work in acute care, medical/surgical, and intensive care, placing them in the bull’s-eye of the pandemic. Several have died. Writer Usha Lee McFarling examines the long, complicated history of Filipino nurses in this country, “a symbiotic relationship born of war and colonialism, and as some see it, racism and the exploitation of a critical medical workforce.”
In New York City, the hardest-hit place on Earth, nearly one in five essential workers — including transit employees, health-care workers, janitors, grocery checkers, and pharmacy clerks — are noncitizens who often live in fear of “being swept up in yet another egregious ICE crackdown,” says a new report from the city’s comptroller’s office. More than half of the essential workers are foreign born and three-quarters are people of color. One in four live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, $52,400 a year for a family of four. On the Columbia University website, Malo Hutson, an associate professor in urban planning, explores what this all means for health equity.
Democrats in Congress are pushing pro-immigrant coronavirus legislation while the White House is using the crisis to clamp down further, The Hill reports. Democrats have proposed automatic extensions of visas, the inclusion of otherwise ineligible immigrants in COVID-19 testing and relief, and other reforms.
We’re also learning how place and race intersect to cause outsized suffering and losses in certain neighborhoods. New York City’s sick and dying are concentrated in poorer communities, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows. The Bronx, which has the highest proportion of residents of color, the largest poor population, and the lowest levels of educational attainment, has higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death than the other four boroughs — even though the Bronx has the lowest proportion of residents ages 65 and older. Hospitalization and death rates are lowest in the most affluent borough and a predominantly White one, Manhattan, even though it has the greatest density and the largest proportion of older residents — the two factors initially thought to be the riskiest.
Disaggregated data from Los Angeles County also bring nuance to our understanding of COVID-19 and challenge early assumptions based on rough statistics. Research from the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative finds that about 30 percent of predominantly Latinx neighborhoods and 20 percent of Asian-majority neighborhoods will face economic uncertainty because of losses to jobs and small businesses. That compares with 3 percent of White-majority neighborhoods. “As the two youngest and fastest-growing populations in the nation, Latinos and Asians will help determine how and when we rebound from this pandemic,” the study’s authors, Sonja Diaz and Paul Ong, write in this NBC News opinion piece.
A Los Angeles Times analysis of state health department data belies the conventional wisdom that old age is the main risk factor for dying of COVID-19. Black and Latinx Californians ages 18 to 64 are dying at higher rates than their White and Asian counterparts and at higher rates than Black and Latinx people ages 65 and older. This worrisome pattern is especially pronounced among those under age 50. The analysis also finds that Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders are dying at four times their share of the state’s population, the most outsized mortality rate of any group. Researchers in San Francisco are studying whether they can effectively control the coronavirus in the hardest-hit zip codes by engaging local residents in the effort. Scientists from UC-San Francisco have teamed up with grassroots volunteers in an ambitious effort to test everyone older than four years old in a section of the Mission District, NPR reports. The initiative, called Unidos en Salud – United in Health, plans to test more than 5,700 residents, predominantly Latinx, for active infection and past exposure to the virus.
In Mississippi, Black people represent less than 40 percent of the population but 56 percent of COVID-19 cases and 63 percent of deaths as of April 19, says Mississippi Today. Reporter Anna Wolfe’s story about Shalondra Rollins, the first person to die of the illness in Hinds County, tracks the 38-year-old woman’s struggles to get the coronavirus test and treatment that might have saved her life. “It may tell us everything about why Black Mississippians are hit so much harder by the pandemic,” the news site says. Wolfe also reports that a coalition of Black leaders is demanding a greater voice in decisions about the millions of federal stimulus dollars flowing to the state. Gov. Tate Reeves has appointed a commission, made up of political allies and business interests, to develop economic recovery strategies. The executive team is composed of five White businessmen.
Native people are largely being left out of demographic data about the spread of COVID-19, Morning Star Gali, a long-time organizer and a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Nation, says in a segment called Surviving Pandemics Is Indigenous Resistance, on the Movement Memos podcast from Truthout.org. Of the states that track racial and demographic data, only about half include Native people in their statistical breakdowns — and some states list them as “other.”
As several governors, including Georgia’s and Florida’s, insist on rapidly reopening their states, and protesters — some carrying AK-47s, Confederate flags, and Nazi banners — march on state capitols to demand an end to stay-at-home orders, reopening is emerging as a civil rights issue, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tells NPR. The group wrote an open letter to African Americans calling these reopenings an act of "reckless disregard for the health and life of Black residents," and urged people to stay home to protect themselves and their families. “This has become a kind of savage and feral contest between politics and public health, and African Americans are caught in the middle,” Ifill said. The group is also pursuing legal action in Arkansas, South Carolina, and Alabama, demanding expanded access to absentee voting, and it is investigating public school districts in the South that closed schools without providing continued instruction for Black children or free and reduced-price meal service.
The coronavirus was once called the “great equalizer” because of its potential to infect anyone. But it was inevitable the virus would hurt people of color first and worst, Black people especially, Michael McAfee suggests in an interview with The American Prospect. “You can’t equalize from a gross place of inequality in a pandemic. I think the story line that is being missed is that we are here by design, we are here by our arrogance, we are here by our lack of leadership...Our disinvestment is coming back to haunt us, but it was hiding in plain sight already.”
Mahasin Mujahid, a public health professor at UC-Berkeley, talks about racism and COVID-19 in this webinar. She cautions that disaggregated data can be misused to confirm false conclusions about the pandemic’s racial dimensions. “We heard the reasons that Blacks are more likely to die because they’re more likely to have underlying conditions,” she said. “Quite frankly it helps society sleep at night. It alleviates the responsibility institutions and systems play in shaping the opportunity, resources, risks, and social hierarchies that exist across the United States.”
While many local governments have reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the virus, state prisons have let out almost nobody, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. Most states have not taken even the simplest, least controversial steps to reduce crowding, such as releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are medically fragile, and those who are locked up for technical violations of probation and parole rules — behaviors that would not be a crime if anyone else did them. (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for such violations.)
The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday rejected a petition to release large numbers of people from that state’s prisons in light of the pandemic, the Albuquerque Journal reports. Also on Monday, older people incarcerated in Texas asked the US Supreme Court to reinstate protective measures in the state’s prisons, after a federal appeals court blocked the measures at the state’s request.
The ACLU has called on governors and the president to release pregnant inmates who have less than a year left on their sentences, NPR reports. The request comes after a 30-year-old Native woman from South Dakota died in federal custody in Texas just days after giving birth.
And three federal prisons in California have come up with a cruel way to fight the coronavirus: cut off phone and email for nearly 4,000 inmates, CBS News reports. The Bureau of Prisons says the move is “solely to mitigate the spread of the virus from multiple people touching keyboards and handsets.” But families who have not heard from loved ones for weeks have expressed outrage. Meanwhile, immigrants detained in some ICE facilities are forced to pay for soap. The Nation reports that many for-profit detention-center operators give people one bar of soap per week, but in the midst of terrifying COVID-19 outbreaks, that rationing system has collapsed.
The dual health and economic emergencies have sparked urgent calls for more relief, equitable recovery strategies, and transformative policies to eliminate the racial and economic inequities that have become so glaring. While the federal stimulus packages have important provisions to help people who’ve lost their jobs get through the crisis, the legislation does not provide enough assistance directly to those most likely to be devastated medically, economically, or both, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says in a new report. It calls for a significant expansion of the safety net, including increased rental assistance, more funding for emergency housing, more generous SNAP benefits for families, and aid for immigrants who lose their jobs or get sick. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also makes the case for raising SNAP benefits for the duration of the pandemic and longer term economic recovery, arguing that the program not only helps the most vulnerable children and families, but also is proven to boost a lagging economy.
Inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which put millions of Americans to work building roads, schools, and other infrastructure, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NewYork, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, have introduced a bill to create a "Health Force." It would galvanize recovery by recruiting, training, and hiring Americans from the swelling ranks of the unemployed to work in public health and health care.
In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Utibe R. Essien and Atheendar Venkataramani — physicians from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively — call on health system leaders and policymakers to take the lead in addressing the alarming COVID-19 racial disparities. In the short run, the authors argue for more disaggregated data, safety net expansion, and investments in community-based care, public health, and social services. But that’s just the beginning. These approaches must be bolstered by “interventions to improve access to high-quality education and address ongoing discrimination in labor markets, housing, and the justice system.”
Foundation executive Loren Harris reflects on the privileges that helped him recover from a debilitating bout of COVID-19, including health insurance, good medical care, paid sick time off, and money to buy medicine — resources unavailable to millions of Americans, especially low-income people and people of color. He calls on philanthropy to think creatively and act boldly to advance health equity, fund a diverse bench of researchers, and engage the people directly impacted by health disparities to shape a vision for the future. “We need a new social contract that more evenly shares our collective burdens and bounty, and philanthropy can model how to create this in partnership with those we serve.”
Hawaii has become the first state to propose what it calls a feminist economic recovery plan. The plan aims to achieve “deep cultural change” by explicitly incorporating the needs of Indigenous and immigrant women, caregivers, older women, non-binary people, incarcerated women, unsheltered women, domestic abuse and sex trafficking survivors, and women with disabilities. Provisions include a universal basic income, emergency funds for marginalized groups, equitable distribution of economic recovery funds, a minimum wage of $24.80 per hour for single mothers, and free, publicly funded childcare for all essential workers, The Lily reports.
COVID-19 racial disparities are playing out globally. When Norway’s public health experts began looking at the case data by race and national origin, they discovered that people born in Somalia have infection rates more than 10 times above the national average, the Financial Times reports. The United Kingdom has seen disproportionate cases and deaths among Black people, Asians, and ethnic minorities. France, which has a large population of immigrants from Africa, prohibits the gathering of statistics based on ethnicity.
As alarm grew in Britain about the racial disparities and a number of deaths among immigrant physicians, the government insisted this isn’t the time to talk about race because health-care workers of every ethnicity are dying, Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic. In fact, she says, the pandemic raises unavoidable and legitimate political questions, and we should recognize that any attempt to dismiss them are driven by ideology and the desire of political leaders not to be held to account.
Sweden has gotten a lot of attention for its decision to forgo a tight business lockdown, encourage older people and others at high risk to stay home, and let the rest of the population get exposed to the virus. The idea is to develop “herd immunity” the way a vaccine would, so enough people become protected that the virus can’t spread. The approach may be appealing but the US shouldn’t copy it, write three international risk analysts in a New York Times op-ed. Sweden now has the highest number of deaths in Scandinavia, especially among older people. In a more densely populated country like the United States, with poorer health overall, gaping racial health disparities, and a larger proportion of vulnerable people, “the human toll of a herd immunity strategy could be devastating.”
The UK abandoned its experiment with herd immunity because its case count skyrocketed. Nevertheless, the strategy has been held up as a possible approach in poor countries with young populations, such as India. That could be disastrous, argue two international health researchers in Foreign Policy. Hospitalizations could overwhelm already fragile health systems and deaths could surge.
Like the virus, the pandemic’s economic fallout is spreading throughout the globe. The pandemic threatens to plunge half a billion people into poverty, the New York Times reports. The United Nations says it has raised just $1 billion of the $90 billion needed to aid the world’s poorest regions.
What will happen to people around the world who work long hours in the crowded, poorly ventilated factories that feed the global supply chain, and then return home to packed apartments and dormitories? Singapore, which seemed to get an early handle on controlling the virus, has seen it flare up among migrants jammed into dormitories, the New York Times reports.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration and major US manufacturers are using their muscle to keep factories in Mexico running even as workers fall sick, according to the Times. They say workers must be responsive to US needs during the pandemic or risk losing their jobs.The Los Angeles Times reports that Mexico’s fragile health-care system is running out of room for COVID-19 patients.
In the US, the pandemic has elevated workplace whistleblowing and collective action to a matter of public health. Low-wage tech workers and gig workers, disproportionately people of color and immigrants, began organizing about five years ago. Initially, it was bus drivers and cafeteria workers at Facebook and Google. In 2019, a group of East African immigrant workers won concessions on workplace conditions at a Minnesota Amazon facility. The coronavirus brings life-and-death urgency to these struggles.
Workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, and Instacart, and other companies walked off the job May 1 — International Workers Day — to demand better protective gear and benefits while they put themselves at risk to keep groceries, toilet paper, and other goods moving. The strike marked the first time workers from all these companies joined in united action. Wired reports on the strike and how consumers can support the workers. Several who took part in the strike share their stories with Vice.
More than 50 racial justice and civil liberties organizations have condemned Amazon and other companies for their response to pleas for safer workplace conditions. “Instead of adopting policies to protect workers, corporations are increasingly adopting invasive surveillance technologies to penalize and monitor lower-wage workers.” The groups say Amazon has fired at least six employees since the pandemic hit the US and gave retaliatory warnings to others who voiced concerns about job safety.
Vice News obtained leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership that show company executives discussed a plan to smear fired New York warehouse employee Christian Smalls, a Black organizer, by calling him “not smart or articulate.” It was part of a public relations strategy to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” and discredit it. You can watch BronxNet’s interview with Smalls here.
The National Labor Relations Board has opened multiple inquiries into whether Amazon has unlawfully retaliated against workers, Business Insider reports. In its latest earnings release, Amazon said it plans to spend all its second-quarter profits, an estimated $4 billion, on pandemic response, including COVID-19 tests for workers and delivery network improvements to get packages to customers on time.
In New York City, young leaders and advocates are fighting to reverse a decision to cancel the Summer Youth Employment Program because of coronavirus concerns, City Limits reports. The program, which provides minimum-wage jobs and internships for participants ages 14 to 24, is an economic lifeline for low-income youth, and they want the city to offer it remotely.
Large employers have a huge role to play in crafting equitable responses to the health and economic crises and using their clout to push government to do the same. On Tuesday, Salesforce became the first major tech company to hold a large public call-out on the suffering in the Black community and how corporate leaders can step up to help.
PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:
- Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
- Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
- Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns.
Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.