Still Can’t Breathe

How Implicit Bias and Racism Have Affected Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

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It seems almost ironic that it took an unknown pathogen sweeping like a wildfire around the globe to call the world’s attention to what black and brown people have understood for centuries.

Or at least, it would be ironic, if it weren’t so heartbreakingly sad. The fact is that communities of color have been suffocated under the knee of implicit bias and racism since long before George Floyd took his final breaths on that Minneapolis street.

And just as Floyd’s death has perhaps, finally, been the world’s wakeup call to the structural violence perpetrated against Black and Brown people, maybe coronavirus will sound the alarm at last to the profound social, economic, and healthcare disparities under which communities of color continue to suffer.

The Impact of Covid-19 on Communities of Colour

It has been said that a virus doesn’t discriminate. It’s been claimed that death and disease know no color. But that simply isn’t true, and the novel coronavirus proves it.

The stark reality is that African-Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die from coronavirus than are whites. And while the virus may be new, the origins of these inequities run deep into the United States’ genocidal past.

The weaponization of health as an instrument of power is backed into American history from before the nation even existed. Smallpox-laden blankets were distributed to native peoples on at least one documented occasion to help rid the colonies of the “nuisance” of the indigenous populations.

In the young United States, slave owners typically provided their slaves with just enough nutrition, medicine, and care to ensure their productivity — their profitability. And when the slaves became too old or too ill to work, masters rarely “wasted” time and money on their geriatric care needs. Many were freed to eke out a beggar’s existence in a racist society that could scarcely tolerate them.

And that is what makes the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic so enraging. Because it’s yet more proof that the maladies of the past persist into the present. If you want to continue to marginalize and disenfranchise others, then you control their access to healthcare.

You make sure that the systems are there to keep sick enough to be dependent, but not so sick they’re a drain. Or you keep them well enough to be productive, but not well enough to fight.

The More Things Change

As far as we may like to think we have come in recent decades, the reality of today is, in far too many ways, not all that different from the world of yesterday. Persons of color continue to be profoundly underserved by the medical community.

For example, health complaints tend to be more readily dismissed when they come from a person of color, and treatment tends to be more sporadic and of much lower quality. And this isn’t just because Black and Brown people tend to have less, or no, insurance coverage — though that’s certainly a factor — but also because of the implicit bias built into the system, the often unconscious stereotypes care providers bring with them into the clinic.

This includes not only African-American populations but also Latinx and indigenous populations. For these demographics, access to consistent, high-quality healthcare isn’t just barred because of linguistic and cultural barriers, but also due to economic ones as well.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, for example, the average life expectancy for women is a mere 52 years. For men, it’s even less, just 47. And if you want to see what all this means in terms of the coronavirus, just look to the Navajo Nation, whose infection rates recently surpassed New York City, once the country’s pandemic epicenter.

Poverty and Policing

There are other significant reasons why the coronavirus is so disproportionately affecting communities of color. When the scope of the pandemic truly began to be realized, governments around the world rushed to shut down entire public infrastructures, desperate to slow the spread.

Schools closed and the workers who could began to do their jobs from the safety of their own homes. But this was a luxury that not many minorities could afford because, again, today’s implicit bias just doesn’t allow it.

Most blue-collar, frontline, “essential” workers are persons of color. Their jobs simply cannot be transitioned to remote work. And their household finances just don’t permit them to stay home until the lockdowns are lifted.

They’re out working in the communities and, day after day, they risk being exposed. But they’re not just being exposed at work. For the vast numbers of Black and Brown men being brought, fairly or unfairly, into America’s jails and prisons, the closure of courts nationwide means that prisoners aren’t getting their cases heard.

They’re not getting the speedy trial to which they have a Constitutional right. And the longer they linger in America’s jails and prisons, the more likely they are to contract the virus.


This article has told some home truths about the country we live in, the so-called land of the free. The undeniable fact is that this great shining city on the hill is built on structures of oppression that continue to cause it to fall far too short of the ideals it proclaims. But change requires having the courage to confront cold, hard facts. It’s about learning as a precursor to doing. It’s about recognizing the vast divide between passive and active learning. Reading about oppression does nothing to fight it. Learning the reasons why more Black and Brown people are dying from COVID won’t stop the deaths of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, more.

The old adage that knowledge is power, it turns out, isn’t true at all. It’s what you do with it that matters. Knowledge becomes power when you make it so when you choose to act on it. Do your research. Learn. Empower yourself to act, armed with information and understanding. Reach out to local advocacy groups.

Volunteer in hard-hit communities to donate blood or plasma. Give of your time. Share whatever resources you have. And above all, strive not just to resist but to dismantle the systems that give rise to this need in the first place. The virus is an enemy that all humans must fight. But we cannot ask, and we must not allow, our  Black and Brown brothers and sisters to fight this battle from beneath the smothering knee of a racist society. Our very humanity cries out for more, for better.

The Takeaway

The coronavirus pandemic has ripped the cover off the systemic inequities that those in power have sought for too long to deny and conceal. Structural racism and implicit bias have created the conditions for the very economic, social, and health inequities that have made the pandemic so deadly for communities of color. For centuries, America has been building and rationalizing the structures that make it impossible for black and brown people to breathe.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.