Opinion | Controlling the spread of COVID-19 requires radical racial solidarity

William D. Lopez is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Alford A. Young, Jr. is Arthur F. Thurnau professor of sociology and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan

Deaths from COVID-19 continue to increase globally, with the number of cases in the United States surpassing 1 million. As the transmission patterns of the disease are better understood, communities throughout the world are given similar advice: wash your hands and stay in your homes. 

Yet a disturbing pattern is starting to emerge in the United States, as COVID-19 infections and deaths are clustering disproportionately communities of color, especially in African-American communities. In order to address these deaths, we must move beyond recommending individual behavior changes. We must commit to a radical racial solidarity that addresses historic systems of injustice.  

As scholars whose work centers on race and as residents of Michigan, the state with the third highest number of COVID-19 deaths, we have watched in horror as the data on COVID-19 are disaggregated by race. In Washtenaw County, home to the University of Michigan, 48 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are African American, despite African-American residents accounting for only 12 percent of the population. These patterns mirror statewide trends, with African Americans making up 40 percent of deaths to COVID-19 but only 14 percent of the state population. Nationwide, the data are equally as grim. 

These disparities follow trends of other racial health inequities, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And as is the case with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the larger burden of deaths due to COVID-19 are influenced by underlying structural and cultural factors, not simply coincidental co-occurrence of other diseases. 

For many African Americans, there are significant challenges to engaging in the recommended practices of social isolation. A system of racist policy practices such as redlining and segregation have clustered African Americans into densely populated areas, often with smaller homes, complicating efforts to socially distance. And while many have moved their jobs online to work from home, this luxury is not possible for millions of African Americans whose work requires face-to-face contact with customers or clients, including jobs in home-healthcare, retail, and postal service, jobs that place workers at higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

The U.S. health care system has also left behind African-American communities. African Americans typically have lower levels of health insurance coverage than other racial groups. For those fearing out-of-pocket costs, it is more common to wait until a health condition becomes emergent to receive treatment. And while the Affordable Care Act expanded health care coverage to a large portion of the uninsured, many southern states, where the majority of African Americans live, declined Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act. These aspects of the healthcare system, as well as many others, contribute to the burden of pre-existing conditions experienced by African Americans that places them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The United States also has the distinct (dis)honor of incarcerating more prisoners than any other country in the world. These prison and jail facilities, in which it is nearly impossible to maintain social distance and follow CDC guidance, have been described as “tinderboxes” and “petri dishes” with conditions ripe for outbreak. With the majority of the 2.2 million prisoners being African American, a racist system of mass incarceration is likely to be responsible for the deaths of a large swath of the African American community.

The racially disparate infection rates of COVID-19 have once again brought to light the systemic fissures in our society that have always led to suffering and early death in African American communities, pandemic or not. Histories of redlining and segregation, exclusionary health care systems, and racist practices of mass incarceration, have all impacted the health of African Americans, increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19. 

On the short term, we must advocate for free coronavirus testing and treatment, government provisions of masks to all essential workers, and broader criteria for prisoner release. On the long-term, we must work to address the underlying poverty that results in chronic conditions, dismantle policies that result in gentrification and substandard housing, decrease the U.S’s dependence on incarceration, and work toward a health insurance system that provides health care coverage to all Americans equally, no matter what state they live in, and whether employed or not. 

Radical racial solidarity is the only sure path to disease control.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron FrenchClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sat, 05/09/2020 - 9:58am

So the virus is racially profiling?

Please stop writing essays like this. Stop telling people they are victims that have no control. Stop celebrating the victim mentality that gets pushed forward and celebrate the lives and stories of people who succeed rathe than spotlighting those who choose to be victims.

Articles like this are divisive at best.

Sun, 05/10/2020 - 9:24am

Anonymous - of course. Just go back to Fox News please.

Dave N
Sun, 05/10/2020 - 6:58pm

Don’t worry “Rick”. Feel free to put down your last name, address and phone number. What a witty statement about going back to Fox. I always appreciate such humorous, original and well thought out material from leftists. As for the article, is standard racist dogma. Perhaps next time just type “I hate Whitey” and save the electronic ink. The bloody virus is color blind.

Barry Visel
Sat, 05/09/2020 - 10:47am

I appreciate the numbers in this piece representing Washtenaw County. Normally I only see the other numbers (14% of State population but 40% of cases). It’s that second set of numbers that have been puzzling me. Neither the black population nor coved 19 infections are spread evenly across the state, so I don’t see the relevancy in the 14/40 numbers. Most of the infections are in southeast Michigan. As near as I can tell, the black population in the City of Detroit is around 60%, and in Wayne County around 40%. The last numbers I saw a few days ago for black population infections was around 40% in Detroit and 40% in all of Wayne County. That appears to be a more even distribution of infections based on the area population demographic, making the statewide 14% black population number meaningless. Now, the Washtenaw County numbers show a different distribution problem which supports the narrative. I still can’t get my head around why reports keep using the statewide 14% number. Maybe someone can help me understand. Thanks

A Yooper
Sat, 05/09/2020 - 10:51am

One has to question how the spread of COVID-19 could have been greatly reduced in the Detroit area had those who had their water shut off could have washed their hands, eh????
"Wash your hands before you come to the table." was always the mantra in our household.
There is no viral profiling Anonymous......"Cleanliness is next to Godliness." as they saying goes.
Would you go to a doctor who never washed his/her hands? One would hope not, but it's whatever floats your boat. And, the Grim Reaper has both oars in the water.

Sat, 05/09/2020 - 3:02pm

Race baiting piece of crap article. William D Lopez, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 2:12pm

This is a shameful comment. This article thoughtfully outlines how racist policies and practices have left African American communities in Michigan more vulnerable to an infectious disease. The point is clear: this vulnerability has translated to higher exposure and impact of the virus in African American communities in the state.

Now, your comment suggests that either, 1) you don't think that these practices have been racist or had a lasting legacy, or 2) that the legacies of these policies have not mattered for the spread of COVID. Let's put that reasoning to play, using redlining as an example. Do you think that redlining was not racist? Do you take issue with the fact that this has led to the clustering of African Americans in densely-populated areas? Or do you take issue with the argument that socially distancing effectively in more densely populated communities is more challenging? Of course you can't support any of these arguments, they are patently absurd. So, you've resorted to a dumb, crude, and - of course - race baiting, comment.

These authors are leaders in their fields - they're professors at one of the top universities in the world - and they took the time to communicate their expertise to the public. You should be reading their article, thinking about, and thanking them for it. I for one, am grateful for the perspective they have provided. Do better.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 05/10/2020 - 3:49pm

There have been recent credible reports that there is an inverse relationship between levels of vitamin D and severity of Covid 19 symptoms. This seems to hold true not only for the Covid 19 virus, but for all viruses. Influenza cases are more severe in patients with low levels of vitamin D. This would account for the seasonal nature of flu epidemics, with flu cases being much more serious in the late winter, when vitamin D levels are low, and less so in the spring when warmer temperatures and more hours of sunshine increase those levels.

African-Americans, whose dark skins make it more difficult for them to produce vitamin D, are especially vulnerable to this effect. Particularly African-Americans who reside in northern latitudes that have fewer hours of sunshine. Yet, the two professors attribute the problem to, what else, "institutional racism."

John Galt
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 10:57am

Contact tracing is unconstitutional as it violates the 4'th amendment.
Opt-out permanently here:

Sun, 05/17/2020 - 10:44pm

The writer has to put race into it.
We're all in this together.