Remembering the Past is Crucial to Rebuilding After this Crisis

By Mariah Williams.

“If black people receive inferior care from hospitals and doctors, are black people to blame? If black people are less likely to be insured, are black people to blame? If hospitals in majority-black counties are overloaded with coronavirus patients, are black people to blame?”

– Ibrahim X Kendi

As we work to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I have often heard, “we are in this together,” signally humanity’s collective effort to create common ground during this time. While this may be true in some regards, the bigger question becomes, “will we make it out together?”

Over the past few weeks as data highlighting racial disparities related to COVID-19 continues to emerge, the answer has become abundantly clear – that decades of discriminatory housing policies and structural racism will mean that black and brown communities will not make it out of this crisis unmaimed in some way.

States across the country have begun reporting race data about the COVID-19 virus, highlighting what many of us already know: African Americans are dying from the disease at a higher rate because of pre-existing conditions and structural racism.

According to Danny Avula, the Director of Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, African-American residents make up 62 percent of the city’s 162 confirmed COVID-19 cases but only comprise 48 percent of the city’s population (US Census). Statewide, race data reported reveals that African Americans make up 30 percent of coronavirus cases, but only comprise 20 percent of Virginia’s population.

At the root of the health inequities we see during this time is decades upon decades of housing policies that created the segregation and disinvestment in communities of color today, cementing the truth that many us know – that where we live determines our health outcomes and our quality of life.

1937 Richmond HOLC "Residential Security" Map which shows neighborhoods divided into 4 grades.

In 1934 when the Federal Housing Administration was created and the Home Ownership Loan Corporation was charged with assigning grades to neighborhoods based on their worthiness to have access to home loans, we could not have fathomed the extent to which this process, called redlining, would become the footprint for perpetuating housing segregation and structural inequality. Decades later, these same black communities are sites for continuous upheaval as public policy is guided by the footprint of redlining.

This health crisis is no different. It underscores the true depths of inequity not only in housing and health, but also education and employment.

In developing policies to respond to this crisis, we must name race, be explicit about how we got to where are today, and remember that policy itself has never been a racially agnostic tool. Blaming the oppressed for their present conditions does not hold housing or other institutions accountable for the roles they’ve played in perpetuating racial inequality. Rebuilding after the COVID-19 crisis requires us to all acknowledge these facts and to always make space for the past as we prepare to move forward.

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