Updated: Jul 17, 2020
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, we can all applaud the recent changes brought on by weeks of protest. The painting of the words "Black Lives Matter" on a D.C. street, the removal of the statues of known racists, the banning of Confederate flags, legislative efforts to ban the police use of choke holds and calls to defund the police have all been hailed as important changes reflecting a "cultural shift" in America.
But while it is true that these are important symbolic gestures, the presumed cultural shift has yet to materialize and motivate the substantial structural changes needed to preserve Black lives. Still, in the midst of these changes that incite our optimism, Black bodies are subjected to grave inequity built upon a solidly racist foundation. It is a system that, in myriad ways, kills more people than choke holds ever will.
For example, the practice of residential segregation that began when freed slaves left the plantations, remain undisturbed in 2020. Insidiously imbued with racially grounded property valuations, desegregated neighborhoods continue to limit the ability of Black property owners to accrue, retain and transfer wealth to their profits. Wealth, as an important resource, can be leveraged to obtain greater educational attainment, a business, or a home, all of which can lead to even greater wealth. And with greater wealth, access to healthier foods, living conditions and health care is assured, as is the greater longevity they provide.
... not much has changed in 124 years.
As W. E. B. DuBois discovered as far back as 1896, after studying the city of Philadelphia, living in a segregated neighborhood is heavily correlated with negative health outcomes for the Black people who live there. Unfortunately, despite the optimism we might feel, not much has changed in 124 years.
In fact, the Institute of Medicine's Unequal Treatment report concluded that "for almost every disease studied, Black Americans received less effective care than white Americans." Given this long-standing trend, it should be no surprise that today COVID-19 infections and mortality rates disproportionately affect Black people. That this reality is expressed by government officials as a surprise is more than peculiar. At best it portrays a woeful ignorance or an ignorance that is willful, and at worst an attempt to present recent evidence of inequality as divorced from a history of injustice.
And by what evil sorcery does the severe segregation exist to the degree that it does in 2020? How has it managed to survive despite the 14th Amendment which is supposed to guarantee equal protection? Residential segregation, positively correlated with relatively negative health outcomes, persists despite our awareness that separate but equal is a ruse, that separation in this country has always been a prerequisite to effecting and perpetuating inequity. As it pertains to segregation, sorcery notwithstanding, equal protection has effectively been subverted by the "right" of white people to live where they choose, among whom they choose.
And with this right comes all of the attended benefits, most notably relative longevity. Defended by the nation's judicial apparatus, this right trumps (a pun intended) any fundamental right to equal access to housing and invoked by Black plaintiffs. Were the courts to end its protection of residential segregation, a system akin to South Africa's apartheid, then we might speak of changing cultural shifts. Until then, we should not be satisfied with being patronized. Black lives depend on it.