Imagine that no one had shot video of George Floyd being killed by police in Minneapolis. There would have been a bland statement that he had died resisting arrest, and none of us would have heard of him.
Instead, the horror of that video has ignited protests around the world. Racism in that video is as visceral as a lynching.
Yet there is no viral video to galvanize us about other racial inequities:
— There is no video to show that a black boy born today in Washington, D.C.; Missouri; Alabama; Louisiana; Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh or India.
— There’s no video to show that black children still are often systematically shunted to second-rate schools and futures, just as they were in the Jim Crow era. About 15% of black or Hispanic students attend so-called apartheid schools that are less than 1% white.
— There’s no video to show that blacks are dying from the coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites, or that a result of the recent mass layoffs is that, as of last month, fewer than half of African American adults now have a job.
“There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night,” Robert Kennedy said in 1968 shortly before his assassination. “This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger and schools without books and homes without heat.”
Health statistics bear that out. A black newborn in the United States is twice as likely to die in infancy as a white newborn, and a black woman is 2 1/2 times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as a white woman.
“Racism is nothing short of a public health crisis,” Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me. “That reality is palpable not just in the scourge of police violence that disproportionately kills black Americans but in the vestiges of slavery and segregation that have permeated the social determinants of health.
“Racism has robbed black Americans from benefiting from the advancements they’ve fought for, bled for and died for throughout history. That reality manifests in myriad ways — from underfunded schools to the gutting of health care and social programs, to financial redlining, to mass incarceration, to voter suppression, to police brutality and more. And it is undeniably harming health and prematurely ending black lives.”
The Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society said in a statement a few days ago, “Structural racism is more harmful to the health and well-being of children than infectious diseases, including COVID-19.”
Sociologists like Orlando Patterson have noted that while whites increasingly have progressive views about race in general, they often still favor public policies that disadvantage African Americans. For example, they may oppose multi-occupancy housing in their affluent suburbs, reducing affordable housing and perpetuating segregation. Or they may support a broken local funding system for education that results in apartheid schools.
“Confinement to segregated, poorly funded schools interferes with children’s life chances,” said Rucker Johnson, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a book, “Children of the Dream,” about integration. Johnson found that U.S. public schools achieved peak integration in 1988 and have since become more racially segregated.
Structural racism doesn’t easily go viral, but it is deadly. A recent study of insurance records found that when blacks and whites with COVID-19 symptoms like a fever and cough sought medical help, blacks were less likely to be given a coronavirus test.
I wonder about doctors who didn’t get black patients tested — or officials who didn’t allocate tests to clinics in black neighborhoods. I’m sure many were well-meaning and had no idea that they were discriminating. But unconscious racial bias is widespread, resulting in what scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “racism without racists.”
Scholars have found, for example, that professional baseball umpires are more likely to call strikes when they are of the same race as the pitcher (whatever their race, although this mostly benefits white pitchers). Likewise, professional basketball referees are more likely to call personal fouls against a player of a different race.
Much of the research seems bleak, but three things give me hope. First, many metrics show improvement. Second, robust evidence shows what policies would help. For example, a careful study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last year showed how we could reduce child poverty by half — hugely reducing racial inequality. What we lack isn’t tools or resources; it’s political will.
My third reason for hope has to do with those biased basketball referees. That research angered the NBA and caused painful controversy — which laid the groundwork for progress. A follow-up study found that after the first research was absorbed, those biased calls disappeared. It appeared that once people were forced to have anguished discussions about racial bias, they were able to overcome it.