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Is Covid-19 a turning point for addressing inequity? History says no

Rod Watson

Count me as skeptical.

Not just because it's my job, or my nature.

But because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

That's why I'm skeptical that, once the novel coronavirus pandemic passes, this society will continue to seriously address the disparities that make the contagion so much deadlier in the African American community.

Predictably, everyone is saying the right things right now, as reflected in Sunday's Buffalo News story.

After the African American Health Equity Task Force made us acknowledge the unequal distribution of resources that lead to disparate health outcomes, there is talk of silver linings in the pandemic's exposure of these terminal inequities. There are expressions of hope that things don't return to a "normal" that has never lived up to the nation's founding documents. And there is the longing to believe that knowledge of the disparities will empower us to change.

But history is not encouraging. Rather, it is instructive.

For instance, look back at the first quarter of this year. The white unemployment rate was 3.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the rate for blacks was 6.6%.

That may – or may not – disturb you; but either way, it's hardly new. A year earlier, the numbers were 3.7% and 7.1%, respectively. In fact, no matter the state of the economy – in good times or bad, expansion or recession – the black unemployment rate is always nearly twice the white rate.

What have we done about that?

Ditto the gap in wealth, that measure of the ability to withstand economic shocks – like this one – as well as to finance college educations, new businesses or any of the other things that lead to more wealth in a kind of compounding effect. The typical white family in the U.S. has a median net worth of about $171,000, or nearly 10 times the roughly $17,600 net worth of the typical black family, according to Federal Reserve data.

Again, that's nothing new. As the Brookings Institution recently noted, "median net worth for white households has far exceeded that of Black households through recessions and booms over the last thirty years," a gap that "reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens."

Yet the gap persists, with little more than occasional lip service bemoaning its existence.

Similarly, the digital divide was well-known long before the pandemic closed schools and highlighted the folly of expecting all kids to benefit equally from virtual learning. Unequal policing – from Buffalo's traffic checkpoints that sparked a federal lawsuit, to New York City's ticketing for social distancing violations – has been a persistent hazard of living while black. And educational disparities remain more than a half century after Brown vs. Board of Education, so much so that families of color still have to fight for seats in Buffalo's best school.

With that as our history, what's the basis for optimism about our ability to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic?

The task force, partnering with a University at Buffalo institute, is doing its part to educate us. It even replaced the word "disparities" with "equity" in its name to project a more positive outlook.

But though death from the pandemic is much more immediate, we merely confront now the extreme version of the historical truism that when America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia. As noted here previously, the novel coronavirus discriminates because our society always has.

Decades after the Civil Rights movement, are we really ready to devote the resources necessary to correct that?

A famous axiom warns of the doom that befalls those who don't learn from history. But as much as I'd like to be wrong, history tells me that once the pandemic passes, that doom for African Americans will again be more hidden, more intractable – and more ignored.

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