May 31, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Black Americans' competing crises

Illustration of black hand reaching out of rough water

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

For many black Americans, this moment feels like a crisis within a crisis within a crisis.

The big picture: It's not just George Floyd's killing by police. Or the deaths of EMT Breonna Taylor and jogger Ahmaud Arbery. Or the demeaning of birdwatcher Christian Cooper and journalist Omar Jimenez. Or the coronavirus pandemic's disproportionate harm to black Americans. It's that it's all happening at once.

"Everybody's world got made smaller by coronavirus," said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of Campaign Zero. "But when you're black, your whole world got a lot smaller."

  • "The danger exists everywhere, at every turn," she said.

The big picture: If you're living in multifamily or multigenerational housing, you're at greater risk for infection.

  • But if you leave the house, you open yourself up to new worlds of risk, including from law enforcement that are supposed to protect you.
  • Early counts in New York showed the overwhelming majority of people police arrested for violating social distancing rules were black.
  • If you're a person of color wearing a mask, you may be viewed differently by store clerks or police than a white person.
  • But if you don't wear a mask, you may jeopardize your own health as well as the health of others — or risk a penalty for violating social distancing rules.
  • Even going for a jog has different considerations.

From voting to demonstrating, there's a constant calculation over whether it's more important to protect your health or express your civic voice — and whether it's possible to do both at once.

  • COVID-19 is killing black Americans at a higher rate than any other race.
  • And the economic fallout from shutdowns is hitting black people particularly hard, with surveys showing roughly a quarter of black Americans couldn't pay rent on time last month or didn't have enough to eat in the past week.

Why it matters: We are living in two Americas, one in which the people who are already left behind are now facing even greater (and sometimes fatal) blows to daily life, and there seems to be growing consensus that we can't ignore that reality.

President Trump tweeted ominously to Minnesota protestors that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

  • "Police violence has historically been the source of the violent rebellions of Black people and their allies. Police violence begets violent resistance," Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, wrote on Twitter.
  • "It is coldblooded to expect any group of people who are being constantly terrorized, brutalized, and killed by police officers to never react in violent rage," he wrote.

By the numbers: Black Americans are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police as white Americans, per a Washington Post database of police-involved shootings.

  • COVID-19 presents another disproportionately deadly threat to black Americans: Roughly 13,000 would still be alive today if they had died of the coronavirus at the same rate as white Americans, per data compiled by the American Public Media Research Lab.
  • Black Americans also are more likely than white people to have someone in their home who has lost their job or wages because of the coronavirus, Pew found.

What's next: The FBI has long collected and released detailed statistics about assaults on law enforcement officers. Last year, it began collecting data on civilian deaths involving police officers, through the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, which is voluntary for police departments, FBI spokesperson Holly Morris told Axios.

  • The first round of data, coming from roughly 40% of the nation's sworn law enforcement, will be released this summer.
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