The following post was written by Whiquitta Tobar, CLS Youth Justice and SSI Attorney.
We are living during unprecedented times in our country. However, each individual crisis taken independently is not uncommon. Social unrest due to the oppression of People of Color and Black people especially, is not uncommon. We can point to the Civil War; the summer of 1919 race riots in Washington D.C.; Knoxville, TN; Longview, Texas; Phillips County, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Chicago, Illinois; the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, and recently the Oakland, Ferguson, and Baltimore riots, as examples of our nation’s history with race- based social unrest. The underlying racial tension and potential explosion due to racial oppression is as American as Apple pie.
While COVID-19 is one of the deadliest pandemics known to man and has killed nearly 120,000 Americans, it is also not the first deadly epidemic in our country’s history. We have dealt with Cholera, Diphtheria, Polio, and the deadly HIV & AIDS pandemic. National economic downturns are cyclical. Many of us can name major downturns during our own lives. For example, the Great Depression, the Dot Com bubble burst of the early 2000’s, and recently the Great Recession. However, it is the combination of these great disasters that is unprecedented.
While we are all affected by this disastrous moment, we are not, and will not be, impacted equally. Devastation trickles down and the bottom suffers the most. Those at the top are wet by the storm, but those at the bottom often drown due to the amassed water. There’s an old saying, “When White people catch a cold, Black people catch the flu”. I contend that when White people catch a cold, People of Color catch the flu and LGBTQ People of Color are the first to die. The initial White/Black saying was often used as a descriptor of large scale and systemic disparity within our nation’s economy. I contend that the revamped statement not only describes the economic disparity, but also describes a general social hierarchy that manifests during most crisis in this country.
COVID-19 has reaffirmed this quip. As of May 2020, 20.5 million people in America were unemployed, mostly due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent economic downturn.
Society as a whole, was and is in crisis, but again, when White people catch a cold, People of Color catch the flu. The unemployment rate for White women in America in May of 2020 was 11.9%, it was 16.7% for Asian women, 17.2 % for Black women, and 19.5% for Hispanic women. With regard to men, the unemployment rate for White men was 9.7%, 13.3 for Asian men, 15.5 for Hispanic men, and 15.8 for Black men. Research done by the Human Rights Campaign in partnership with PSB research showed that 38% of LGBTQ people of color had their work hours reduced compared to 24% in the general population. Twenty-two percent of LGBTQ People of Color have become unemployed since COVID-19 began, higher than all of their aforementioned heterosexual counterparts.
The impact of high unemployment not only creates financial devastation for People of Color and especially LGBTQ People of Color, it also creates a dire health predicament in the middle of a pandemic, as health benefits are generally connected to employment. There is a disproportionate racial impact relating to COVID-19 resulting in severe sickness and death. The CDC recently did a MMWR report that included race and ethnicity data from 580 patients hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19. The CDC found that 33% of the hospitalized patients were Black, compared to 18% in the community. The death rate for Black people in New York City was 92.3 deaths per 100,000 population and 74.3 deaths per 100,000 for Latinx persons, in comparison to 45.2 deaths for White people. While there is poor data collection for LGBTQ People of Color regarding COVID-19 death, it is reasonable for one to ascertain that the hierarchy mentioned above is similar in health disparities relating to COVID-19.
As mentioned previously, the social hierarchy extends well beyond finances and health, and is present in nearly every crisis. Another example is the current social unrest due to police brutality. It is true that law enforcement misconduct does not solely occur between officers and Black Americans or People of Color, and extends beyond race. White Americans also experience negative interactions with law enforcement; however, Black Americans disproportionately experience such interactions. Cody T. Ross, a doctoral student in the anthropology department at UC Davis, concluded in his research that there was “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed Black Americans relative to unarmed White Americans”. He asserted that the probability of being Black, unarmed, and shot by the police is 3.49 times the probability of being White, unarmed, and shot by the police. Furthermore, nearly annual viral cell phone footage of police murders and misconduct towards Black Americans solidify the impression of disproportionality, if not fact.
Police brutality also falls within the initial hierarchical statement. A 2013 Williams Institute survey found that 48% of LGBTQ victims of violence reportedly experienced police misconduct. According to Injustice at Every Turn, A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 38% of Black Transgender people reported biased harassment and 15% experienced assault by law enforcement. We have to look no further than Brianna Hill, a transgender Black woman from Kansas City Missouri, who was severely assaulted by two Kansas City police officers – Mathew Brummett and Charles Prichard.
Fifty-three percent of Black Transgender people who have done sex work or participated in underground economies have experienced high levels of police violence. Black Transgender people are more than twice as likely to report physical assaults and four times as likely to report sexual assault by the police. Those of us in the community often hear of rape stories like this one in the Chicago Tribune. An example of deadly violence against LGBTQ Black people is Tony McDade, a transgender Black man recently murdered by Tallahassee police.
I write this article in June, a month usually reserved for Pride parades. It is not lost on me that the Pride celebration we know today, started as the Stonewall Riot in 1969, and was led by two Black and Brown transgender women – Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The riot was a response to LGBTQ people’s frustration with unjust police raids and misconduct. I write this to say, police brutality against LGBTQ people is not new. They were tired then and we are tired now because Black and Brown LGBTQ folks oftentimes disproportionately bear the brunt of over policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Lastly, even the effects of the protest show this hierarchy of crisis. While people of all races have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and misconduct, we are not all being affected the same. Yes, our White allies are also experiencing the repressive tendencies of some state agents, known to many of us for decades and centuries. However, after the protest, many of our White allies go home to their reasonably policed neighborhoods, good healthcare benefits, and middle-class jobs. Meanwhile, many Black and Brown people are left to face the wrath of an agitated paramilitary force in our over policed neighborhoods, where LGBTQ People of Color are disproportionately affected by homelessness and unemployment, and thus are an easy public target for criminalization. After our unified march, Black and Brown folks go back to being essential workers at jobs where healthcare benefits are not available. Transgender Black and Brown folks go back to the reality of the reversal of transgender healthcare protections by the Trump administration.
Ultimately, this unprecedented moment is affirming what many of us have already known, when White people are affected by crisis in this country, the very same crisis negatively impacts People of Color more severely due to institutional and structural racism, and impacts people within the minority groups the most severely due to compounded intersectional discrimination. When White people catch a cold, People of Color catch the flu, and LGBTQ People of Color are the first to die.