This is less of a newspaper column for general readers than an open letter to public health officials in America — a missive, really: Figure out if majority-black cities are suffering more than others, and if so focus a significant part of your fight against the coronavirus, both resources and research, there.
The reason: Of the limited race-specific data we have so far, some of the greatest death disparities we’ve seen, where black people are dying at much higher rates than their percentage of the population, are in majority-black cities.
This week, New York City finally got around to releasing race-specific data. This revealed a disproportionate impact on both black and Hispanic people, but the disparities were not as great as in some other cities.
Black people make up 22 percent of the population of New York City, but represent 28 percent of the deaths from the virus. Hispanics make up 29 percent of the city, but represent 34 percent of the deaths. (Even without large disparities, the numbers are big because there are millions of black and Hispanic people in the city.)
Now compare that to the breathtaking numbers we are seeing from cities with a black majority or plurality — New Orleans, Milwaukee, Chicago — where black people represent 70 to 80 percent of the deaths, though their percentages of the population don’t come close to that.
Michigan has released data that show a disproportionate impact on black people, but it didn’t break out race data for Detroit, the state’s largest city, which also happens to be majority black. But, as The Detroit Free Press reported Friday, “Combined, Wayne County and the city of Detroit have about half of the entire state’s cases of coronavirus — 47 percent — for a total of at least 5,069 cases.”
California has had much success in controlling the spread and impact of the virus. Partly, that is because the state and its cities took early and strong actions. But it is not lost on me that there isn’t a single majority black city in the state.
At the same time, states with small black populations have fared far better. Washington State, with one of the first outbreaks in this country, hasn’t seen the explosion of cases that New York has seen. There again, black people are only 4 percent of the population in the state.
We urgently need more data. We need to know if what we are seeing in early data from majority-black cities is a pattern or not. Every city, state and the federal government must gather and publicize the data now.
And this is the reason: There are more than 1,200 majority-black cities in America and the number is rising. The overwhelming number of those cities are in the South, where many governors, almost all Republican, dragged their feet in taking action against the virus.
We simply can’t allow more of those cities to become the next New Orleans.
I am not able to explain why this might be happening. Scientists will have to do that and they may have to do it in retrospect. The urgent need now will be to simply stop the dying.
It may be that these majority black cities simply have more essential workers who are also black. The issues of co-morbidities may be more acute there. There may be more poverty. There may be more people without cars and depending on public transportation.
Whatever the case, let’s set the data now, and if they show what I suspect they will, let’s shift our focus to these majority-black cities.