Black America and fear: Race-based data as a tool for effective COVID-19 policy

Leland Harper (, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Siena Heights University

Much of the data collection on COVID-19 infection and its long-term consequences among particular race groups, thus far, has been privately funded and limited in scope. Few governmental agencies have funded, analysed or appealed in meaningful ways to race-based data related to any aspects of this pandemic.

Effective policy relies on the most complete and accurate data available, especially regarding health, freedom and finance. Without complete data, policy makers’ work is compromised, and the resulting policy will likely be misguided and ineffective. The unique positioning of Blacks within American society, and the associated fears within Black America, requires that race-based COVID-19 data be collected and considered by public officials when drafting policy. Insofar as Black Americans are more susceptible to more profound, generational, defining loss than white Americans, race-based data is an essential tool for drafting and implementing effective policies related to lockdowns, economic recovery and vaccine distribution. Publicly funded race-based data collection and analysis, in this case, is the best available tool for policy makers to gain insight into a particular segment of the population and to ultimately draft policies that better respond to the specific needs of that community. Race-based data is a tool that needs to be used far more broadly than it has been up to this point in the pandemic.

Black America faces various forms of disenfranchisement. Blacks continue to be politically handcuffed because of their overrepresentation in the US prison system and by felony disenfranchisement. The disproportionate inability to vote in the years leading up to this pandemic means that Black America is largely at the mercy of public officials for whom they had no voice in electing. According to The Sentencing Project, as recently as late 2016, it was estimated that the total number of votes lost to felony disenfranchisement was 6.1 million. Given the overrepresentation of Blacks in the broader American criminal justice system, it is reasonable to assume that Blacks are also disproportionately negatively impacted by felony disenfranchisement.

There is also the matter of disenfranchisement as the result of non-punitive considerations. By this, I mean instances where individuals are legally entitled to vote but cannot actually vote because of any number of socioeconomic considerations. Jennifer Kling and I have previously addressed this issue in our 2020 essay ‘The Semantic Foundations of White Fragility and the Consequences for Justice’. We note that Blacks are overrepresented in blue-collar, hourly jobs that ‘do not tend to afford workers the time they would need to even potentially exercise their supposed rights, as citizens living in a purportedly democratic system, to various kinds of standard political engagement’. Given the socioeconomic position of Blacks in America, even if workers in these jobs could get the day off to vote, there is no guarantee that they are in the position to sacrifice a day’s pay. Furthermore, the financial implications relating to transportation, childcare, personal health and mobility, among others, may all serve as barriers preventing Blacks from exercising their right to vote. All of these factors leave Black America with a muted voice in the policy-making processes that govern their lives, potentially fuelling feelings of helplessness and fear.

According to Brookings, the average white American family has a net worth nearly ten times that of the average Black American family. These ratios translate to $171,000 and $17,150, respectively. Black America is already operating, financially, on a razor edge, with almost no cushion to soften the blow from this historic economic crash.

Looking back to the 2008 recession and the events surrounding it, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., in his 2017 book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, writes that ‘African Americans lost 31 per cent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010. White Americans lost 11 per cent. By 2009, 35 per cent of African American households had zero or negative net worth. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2011, Black families had lost 53 per cent of their wealth’. By holding less wealth, Black America is not only far closer to the brink of generational financial ruin as a result of the downturn in global markets than white America, but also less able to protect against contracting the virus, spreading the virus and suffering the more severe symptoms if infected.

Many of the recommendations from community health organisations throughout this pandemic amount to ‘stay home from work’, ‘spend more time in open, well-ventilated, outdoor areas’ and ‘avoid close contact with others’. While these recommendations are likely to help flatten the curve, they are not feasible for many Black American families. Each of these recommendations presupposes the financial position to adhere to the recommendations – a position in which Black America does not find itself.

For many Blacks, the option of staying home from work and heeding the advice of public health agencies for any prolonged period is not viable. Many Blacks occupy front-line or essential jobs, work in positions where social distancing is not viable and are not financially able to miss work to avoid contact with others. As such, many Blacks are forced to decide between staying home from work and missing out on much-needed income or going to work and facing potential exposure. This has forced many Black Americans to weigh the fear of certain financial destitution against the fear of potential infection. The fear associated with this kind of decision is further compounded by the fact that Black America suffers from higher rates of pre-existing health conditions, some of the most accurate indicators for suffering from severe and life-threatening symptoms if infected with COVID-19. A successful response to the pandemic must include an understanding of how wealth disparities have tipped the scale against the health of Black America.

Given the silenced political voices, diminished overall health and relative lack of wealth, Black America faces many more substantial fear-inducing circumstances than white America. These circumstances influence behaviour and attitudes towards lockdown measures and travel restrictions, whether or not public health agency recommendations can and will be followed, and vaccine hesitancy. Furthermore, these circumstances reflect the needs of a particular community as we move toward the recovery stage of this pandemic. The circumstances of Black America’s COVID-19 pandemic are drastically different from white America’s. Moving forward with policies and solutions that benefit all must acknowledge these diverse circumstances, the emotions they induce and the actions they motivate. Funding, administering and relying on race-based data is necessary for policy makers to make effective public policy. Without complete data, they will continue to craft and implement ineffective policies that overlook underrepresented constituents whom they should be protecting.  

Leland Harper is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Siena Heights University and the author of Fear and the importance of race-based data in covid-19 policy implementation published in Global Discourse.

Article reposted with permission from Transforming Society

Further reading

David Bartram: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Didier Bigo, Elspeth Guild and Elif Mendos Kuşkonmaz: Obedience in times of COVID-19 pandemics: politics of protection, politics of fear and governmentality of unease

Dan Degerman, Matthew Flinders & Matthew Johnson: Understanding the politics of fear: COVID, crises and democracy

Paul Faulkner: Lockdown and a Case Study in How to Lose Trust

Pablo Fernández Velasco, Bastien Perroy, and Roberto Casati: The collective disorientation of the COVID-19 crisis

Frank Furedi: Reply to reviews of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Peter Jones: The Pandemic, Freedom and Fear: A Reply to Moser

John A. Hall: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Leland Harper: Confronting COVID-19: Rational and Unique Fear in Black America

Isabela Kalil, Weslei Pinheiro, Alex Kalil, Sofia Silveira-Florek, João Vicente Pereira, Wiverson Azarias, & Ana Beatriz Amparo: Politics of fear in Brazil: Far-right conspiracy theories on COVID-19

Ned Lebow: Fear, pathogens and political order

Claudia Leeb: The Fear of Covid: a Psychoanalytic Critical Theory Perspective

Noëlle McAfee: A reply to Castration Anxiety, COVID-19, and the Extremist Right by Claudia Leeb

Elias Moser: Nozick on Fear and the Covid-19 Lockdown Policy

Philip Pettit: Lockdown and breakdown: a reply to Faulkner

Matthew Ratcliffe: A reply to Fernández Velasco, Perroy and Casati

Marcella Schmidt di Friedberg: A reply to Fernández Velasco, Perroy and Casati

Férdia Stone-Davis: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Kaspar Villadsen: What is the New Governmentality of the COVID-19 Pandemic? A Reply to Didier Bigo, Elspeth Guild and Elif Mendos Kuşkonmaz     

Ruth Wodak: Crisis-Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Politics of Fear and Hope

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