Systemic Racism Is Killing Black People During the Pandemic

Coronavirus exacerbated already existing racial health disparities. Here’s what needs to be done.

Erika Stallings
Published in
6 min readMay 27, 2020


A photo from the back of a black man wearing a face mask looking out his window.
Photo: Maurian Soares Salvador/Getty Images

As Covid-19 infections continue spreading across the country, it’s become clear that the burden of coronavirus is not being felt equally across racial lines. According to CDC data on Covid-19 hospitalization during the month of March, 33% of hospitalized patients were black despite only being 18% of the surveyed population. And a recent preprint study from Yale School of Medicine found that blacks had a 3.57 times higher risk of dying from Covid-19 than whites. For Latinos, the risk was 1.88 times higher.

It’s been noted that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be essential workers, which means they may be at a higher risk for exposure to the coronavirus. But experts say much of the racial disparity being observed in Covid-19 infections and deaths can actually be traced to pre-existing racial inequities related to so-called “social determinants of health.” “Level of educational attainment, neighborhood resources, employment status, and ability to earn a living wage are all social determinants of health in the United States,” explains Jessie Marshall, MD, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, adding that “racism is driving the racial disparities that we see.”

Racial inequities lead to higher Covid-19 morbidity

Majority black neighborhoods in the U.S. are more likely to lack access to supermarkets and more likely to have fast food restaurants as compared to majority white neighborhoods, which are both strongly correlated with higher risk of obesity and poorer dietary consumption. Those neighborhoods are also less likely to have the physical infrastructure, such as parks or sidewalks, that promote physical activity. “We know that if you’re not physically active and you have more of a sedentary lifestyle, that increases your chances of having chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes or high blood pressure,” Marshall explained. For example, African Americans are 40% more likely than whites to have high blood pressure and 60% more likely than whites to have been diagnosed with diabetes.