Structural racism is the real pandemic

We need sustained investment in deprived communities

AS THE DEATH TOLL mounts daily from COVID-19, so do the headlines and data documenting its disparate impact on communities of color, especially black people, immigrants, native people, poor people, and those living at the intersections of these identities. The impact of COVID-19 tells a tale of the “web of disadvantage” spun from decades of disinvestment in, and disregard for, poor communities of color.

Structural racism is the pandemic; COVID-19’s disparate impact is just a symptom of a long-festering and deadly virus.

The disparities and injustice being exposed and underscored by the unequal spread of the novel coronavirus are no revelation. Our people have been living through the pandemic of racism for centuries—too often ignored or unseen as many enjoyed health and prosperity, now suddenly threatened.

We won’t dwell on the reasons for the disparities: poverty-stricken communities lack access to adequate personal protective equipment; poor communities of color are overburdened with preexisting social conditions of air pollution and environmental toxicity and food deserts and inequities in healthcare; social distancing is a privilege denied to “black and Latino workers  overrepresented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead.”

In recent weeks as we read about the surge, flattening the curve, protests over supposed infringement of rights, the threat to the economy, and additional billions in relief, we’ve seen more of the same on the streets of Boston. Our people are hurting. Our people are dying.

In a news cycle dominated by COVID-19, the increase in gun violence in Boston, characterized as an “uptick,” is at once buried and amplified. After each tragedy, press conferences scorn and shame those committing harm, but do not redress root causes of violence. Then, community violence is largely buried, cycled out of the news. After all, what is one death, one murdered child, compared to thousands hospitalized and dying?

Violence is a symptom of poverty. Community violence is a predictable outgrowth of a disease that exploits every existing vector of disadvantage from structural racism: mounting economic pressure and grief and trauma and stress and anxiety and isolation—from community supports and from resources.

To understand the recent violent episodes in Boston, we must recognize what contributes to insecurity: young people are out of school and many who had employment prior to this pandemic are now either out of work and confined at home or risking their lives and health in essential jobs that pay menial wages. With service providers largely shuttered, there is even less access to mental health treatment and to street workers engaged in public health violence intervention programs. Confining people to their homes who are suffering from widespread PTSD is causing panic.

Our years of lived experience and study have proven that the only way to address this ongoing pandemic is on the ground. We take to the streets to tend to the scores of Black bodies and Black families who need assistance right now. There we encounter the humanity of our neighbors even as they engage in and are fallen by violence; on the streets, we can begin to address the conditions that create and sustain an environment conducive to gun violence.

Street outreach is only one thread of the tapestry we must weave to prevent street violence. Our knowledge isn’t lacking. What’s lacking is the political will to repair the damage of racism.

We need the kind of political will that has been wielded to free up billions of dollars in a few weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The kind of will that recognizes serious need and moves with resolve to address it. The kind of will reserved for those who have voice and power and the means to make them heard and felt.

That kind of will is politically distant from our communities, in the face of the virus and before. The conditions that exacerbate the effects of the virus also cause and exacerbate the effects of violence. Those conditions have long been tolerated as part of our daily lives by the political powers that be; their only responses are punitive, creating the crisis now faced in our prisons and jails.

When the media and elected officials speak of an “uptick” in violence and crime, we shake our heads. To families constantly exposed to the possibility of gun violence, it is not a matter of statistical trends. A shooting, a fatality, is no more a “tick” than the death of a loved one from this virus. Lives are at stake, and deaths are avoidable.

The biggest lesson from this pandemic is that a public health approach requires focusing on prevention. We have written together before to demand more funding for the health of our communities. To prevent future tragedies—caused by the epidemic of an infectious disease or of gun violence—we need sustained, substantial investment in deprived communities: for business owners and restauranteurs; for formerly incarcerated people, including with city-sponsored housing and employment for those who are returning to a particularly difficult world; for our children and our elders alike.

Meet the Author

Monica Cannon-Grant

Director, Violence in Boston Inc.
Meet the Author

David J. Harris

Managing director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice Harvard Law School
Boston needs a new approach to community safety rooted in equity. We must shift funding from the apparatus of control and punishment to upstream solutions in under-resourced communities of color: truly affordable housing and healthcare; nutritious food; quality education; job training and living wage employment; investment in small businesses; elimination of hazardous environmental conditions; mental health, substance use treatment, and harm reduction. It’s budget season: will the General Court, City Council, and the mayor heed this call such that the prospect for an equitable Boston emerging from this pandemic is no longer so distant?

Monica Cannon-Grant is the CEO of Violence In Boston Inc. and David J. Harris is managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.