How Does Systemic Racism Relate to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Updated: Jul 6

In recent months, COVID-19 has devastated the globe. But not all communities have borne the brunt of the pandemic equally. Aside from elderly individuals concentrated in retirement homes and community living facilities, the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color — particularly Black and Brown communities — in the United States, highlighting preexisting, deep-seated health inequities in this country.

We already discussed on our COVID-19 series part II, that, historically, in the wake of pandemics, xenophobia flourishes, famines, and multilateral wars may occur.

Illustration: Mike Luckovich/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Past pandemics exposed societal anomalies, fundamentally reshaped how the economy worked, social norms, beliefs, and values. The COVID-19 earthquake has exposed and exacerbated ingrained cracks in our socio-economic infrastructure.

Socio-economic structures that were built over the last century are still experiencing post-earthquake shock waves and have not settled yet. The beneficiaries of the status quo “As-Is” are pushing back to keep business as usual pre-pandemic. Individuals and communities pass through the same change curve (see the below figure). The strain between conservative and change evangelical “To-Be” is being augmented. Power shifts and wealth redistribution are inevitable. Shortages of essential skills during and after the pandemic will lead to increased wages and falling prices of products with less utility. Consequently, standards of living and resilience for most demographic categories will improve for the better in the longer term.

“Systems thinkers can easily visualize historical patterns, current systems dynamics, and events: Construction, destruction, and reconstruction are imperative isochronism- the cycle of causal loops, events, and balancing feedback loops seeking to restore the ecosystem’s equilibrium. The sequence is part of the universe’s natural selection process.”

Source: Fisher’s process of personal change — revised 2012

In this article (COVID-19 series part IV), we wed health to economic success, and discuss how to do informed systems tweaking to transition to post-pandemic norms smoothly and minimize the socio-economic toll. We will begin with analyses at the employment, workplace, and institutional levels, because the coronavirus is exacerbating economic and wage disparities. As stated by the International Labor Organization, the work ecosystem is profoundly influenced by the pandemic. It will require the work of governments, employers, and workers collectively to combat its consequences. It is essential to recognize the complex web of discriminatory workplace practices, staggering unemployment rates, and institutionalized racism to grasp some of the acute and long-term consequences of the pandemic. Because racism is inextricably bound to systems of power, the economy, and the social fabric of the United States, the pandemic requires drastic restructuring — maybe even complete overhaul — of present systems and a reconsideration of fundamental economic and workplace practices in this country.

According to the World Health Organization, groups that experience health inequities, such as marginalized communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and women, wield minimal social, political, or economic power. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, rates of Black unemployment were at least twice as high as white unemployment in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). More recent EPI research from June 2020 suggests that racial disparities in health status, access to health care, wealth, employment, wages, income, and housing contributed to communities of colors’ physical and economic vulnerability to the ravages of COVID-19. Unsettling data from the CDC indicates that, although Black Americans make up only 12.5% of the U.S. population, they account for 22.4% of deaths from COVID-19. These are sobering statistics and barely scratch the surface of the complex ramifications of systemic racism.

Source: The Economic Policy Institute

Furthermore, ethnic and racial minorities are often concentrated in crowded, polluted urban areas, making social distancing difficult or even impossible, and heightening exposure to airborne diseases, toxins, and pollutants. An unsettling study from Yale University found that Black individuals in the U.S. are 3.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts; Latinx Americans are two times more likely. People of color are likelier to have preexisting health conditions like asthma, immunocompromised, HIV, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and less likely to have health insurance.

LaShawn Marie Glasgow makes a salient point, in a recent article in Health Affairs :

“Addressing individuals’ health-related social needs is a critical, but insufficient strategy for redressing racial health disparities. Black-white disparities in health is a deeply rooted, complex problem, and it requires a comprehensive response that involves providing individual-level support, tearing down structural and systemic barriers through policy change, and promoting the equal value of all human lives.”

Some of the deep-rooted issues, structural and systemic barriers exist in terms of opportunities of education, health, employment, wage gaps, and prosperity in the U.S. In addition to the health consequences, the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic has been and will continue to be unduly felt by communities of color in the United States.

Black workers are disproportionately found among the essential workers like grocery and convenience store employees, public transit workers, postal service workers, and health care workers, who cannot work from home, and continue risking their own health and the health of their families to provide vital services. Also, many workers have been laid off; as of April 2020, the black unemployment rate was 16.7%, and the white unemployment rate was 14.2%.

Source: The Economic Policy Institute

Obviously, these gaping disparities pre-date COVID-19 and are only being exacerbated and rendered visible by the pandemic. Examining structural racism embedded in the workplace can help us move forward and begin the long process of remediating these issues on the economic front.

“Systemic racism is not only an American problem; although it is one of the worst subtle forms after the apartheid regime in Africa, ethnoreligious prejudices exist all through the globe, even among the black races and religions, tribes, and sometimes even families.”

The momentum created after George Floyd’s death has a trickling impact throughout many countries. Many nations have taken to the streets in protest, expressing dismay and ruminating over their own grievances. Here is an article link about racism in Europe published by Frontiers in Sociology if you want to have a deep drive into ethnoreligious prejudices.

Workplace Diversity Initiatives — Only the Start

Historically, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have been systematically excluded from the workplace and relegated to low wage menial labor. This is an enduring consequence of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, which entailed large-scale segregation, exploitation, and disenfranchisement of people of color. Employers should establish programs designed to recruit and train individuals of color not only to have representative participation but lead in industries that have traditionally excluded them, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Also, this report suggests completely eliminating employer exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

“There are vast differences between diversity rights and equity and inclusion obligations.”

Combating systemic racism in the workplace is far more complicated than just instituting diversity quotas and instating office policies that advocate for “diversity and inclusion.” According to an article in The Harvard Business Review, many diversity and inclusion tools that became more mainstream in the 1990s were insufficient, encouraging businesses to make employees of color fit into preexisting organizational structures. Now, however, organizations must commit to ongoing learning and transformation. They will need to create radically new types of equitable organizational structures that allow upward mobility and recognition of the accomplishments of individuals of different ethnicities, races, genders, and abilities. Management and other staff must continually educate themselves, build inclusive workplace cultures, and constructively address conflict if it arises. There is a long road ahead for achieving equity and racial justice in the workplace.

Professor Ruqaiijah Yearby, a professor of law and director of the Institute of Equity in Society at St. Louis University School of Law, offers some suggestions for combating structural racism in employment and wages. Yearby suggests that the federal government track hiring and wage data based on race and gender, while publicly requiring hiring and pay information data. This type of transparency could help remedy wage disparities that are not based on qualifications, but rather, on discrimination based on gender, ability, race, etc. This type of hard data could enable greater employer accountability and could penalize employers that do not pay equitably. Also, Yearby suggests that employers provide comprehensive health care resources and insurance to vulnerable employees who may otherwise have difficulty securing health insurance.

“Graduation from the elite university must not be a condition for being treated with dignity. Many black Americans are suffering from poster syndrome because of pressure to be twice as good as their White counterparts.”

Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion (DEI) Results-Based Incentive Program

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has written Compliance Assistance Guides for government contractors and subcontractors. According to DoL, the OFCCP is under a revision process because of new regulatory and/or other changes. There are suggested good practices and self-audit guidelines which I think lack teeth as well as the energizing, and rewarding mechanisms.

My experience that the compliance mindset does not yield the expected outcomes, and, in the long run, it will become mostly a process of ticking the boxes, bending the rules, or cover-up. The DoL must develop a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) results-based incentive program in the form of tax credits or deduction or better tendering opportunities or contractual agreements. The program must be linked to the contractor’s balanced scorecard and has a robust theory of change and an Integrated Results & Resources Framework (IRRF). DEI results-based incentives program could be an energizing and rewarding mechanism that encourages healthy competition between different actors and creates a better organization public standing. Most research around Corporate social responsibility (CSR) showed that genuine CSR actions are rewarded by higher employee productivity.

The U.S government (USG) must enable the private sector to enroll in the program, and design similar initiatives for all international U.S. taxpayer’s receipts. I reached on the 12th June 2020 to the UN, UNDP, IMF, and WB for their workforce demographic and background statistics, regrettably I did not get any feedback or even acknowledgment of my email receipt up to today’s early morning of July 1st.

“The achieving of preset and measurable EDI targets must be condition precedent to disbursement of any U.S taxpayer’s penny to multilateral organizations or contractors. These targets must be SMARTER (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound as well as Evaluated regularly and Recognized/Rewarded when achieved or Revisited when not). Rigorous accountability systems have to be established for oversight along with the needed regulatory framework.”

As said, charity starts at home, and such statistics must be available publicly. Multilateral organizations must set an example for others to follow and exert more congruence and transparency. Without these data, EDI status in these institutions cannot be appraised or even learn from their best practice, if any. Still, I am waiting for feedback and will keep the readers posted in my next article if I get any updates.

Despite some companies’ adoption of anti-discrimination policies, racial discrimination in the workplace can still be challenging to litigate, according to research from the D.C. Policy Center. Sometimes, racism manifests in more diffuse and insidious manners, and may not even be detected by well-meaning companies. Unconscious bias can lead to racist hiring practices — these biases, for example, could manifest as white individuals receiving more job offers than their equally qualified competitors of color. Companies should hold unconscious bias training sessions, but this is a small step to take in a long process. Diversification of recruitment practices is also crucial since social and professional networks tend to be homogenous. This could mean advertising job opportunities in community centers, places of worship, and schools, to ensure that people of color are given access to well-paying opportunities. It is essential, especially to provide young people internships and educational resources to allow them to advance professionally and financially.

Being more inclusive and diverse is not just beneficial to individual workers — it helps drive innovation. A recent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review discusses how homogenous organizations can get caught in their own, insular narratives, which inhibits creative and innovative thinking. According to Catalyst.org, workplace teams are 158% more likely to understand target consumers when they have a member who represents their target’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture. And, according to the D.C. Policy Center, one study found that the likelihood of a woman would be hired from a potential candidate pool increased from zero to fifty percent when the number of women in a four-person pool increased from one to two. This finding was similar for candidates of color.

Source: Catalyst, Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies (15th January 2020) — The percentage of women in leadership positions shrinks significantly as they ascend the corporate pyramid.

“To start, corporate Diversity shouldn’t be a goal. It should be the outcome of a fundamental shift in the DNA of a company. We spend time setting diversity agendas and forming new D&I initiatives, but the problem with affirmative action is that the people coming in feel stigmatized immediately,” said Black tech CEO Travis Montaque in his commentary in Fortune.

Even as the pandemic presents opportunities to restructure economic and social structures in the U.S., no change will happen unless we collectively address the deep cultural issues and think beyond creating positions and training for diversity officers. Changes must become ingrained in organizations’ mandates and values, and organizations must create the necessary policies, strategies, plans, and procedures which address inequity head-on. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) must be part of an organization’s balanced scorecard, supported by evidence-based oversight systems and research. It is a long path ahead, but a necessary passage to promote the health and livelihoods of historically marginalized individuals and communities in the United States. Considering massive structural changes can lead to a reconsideration of the social contract in the pandemic era, and an examination of power dynamics between diverse individuals and political entities, which will be explored in greater depth in an upcoming article.

Written By

Asaad Taha, Ph.D., PRINCE2®, MSP®

Senior Managing Partner @S4F.Solutions™ , S4F.Solutions™ empowers organizations to bridge the gap “Black-Box” between their invested resources and envisioned results.”

Dr. Taha is a leading Social Impact Entrepreneur, Futurist and Senior Principal Adviser with multi-sectoral expertise on the continuum of social impact programs — from the strategic level to frontline delivery

Work Cited:

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COVID-19 and the world of work. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/coronavirus/lang--en/index.htm.

Equity. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/healthsystems/topics/equity/en/.

Evans, M. D. R., and Jonathan Kelley. “Prejudice Against Immigrants Symptomizes a Larger Syndrome, Is Strongly Diminished by Socioeconomic Development, and the UK Is Not an Outlier: Insights From the WVS, EVS, and EQLS Surveys.” Frontiers in Sociology 4 (2019). https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2019.00012.

Glasgow, L. S. M. (2020, 9th June). Beyond Lip Service: Taking A Genuine Approach To Tackling COVID-19 (And All) Black-White Health Disparities In The United States. Health Affairs. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200604.585088/full/.

Gould, E., & Wilson, V. (2020). Black workers face two of the most lethal preexisting conditions for coronavirus- racism and economic inequality. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/black- workers-covid/.

Gross, C. P., Essien, U. R., Pasha, S., Gross, J. R., Wang, S.-Y., & Nunez-Smith, M. (2020). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Population Level Covid-19 Mortality. MedRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.07.20094250

Harper Jantuah, C., Moench, D., & Bond, S. (2019, 25th September). Using Diversity and Inclusion as a Source for Humanitarian Innovation (SSIR). Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/using_diversity_and_inclusion_as_a_source_for_humanitarian_innovation.

Hecht, B. (2020, 16th June). Moving Beyond Diversity Toward Racial Equity. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/06/moving-beyond-diversity-toward-racial-equity?utm_medium=social.

“John Fisher’s Personal Change Stages — BusinessBalls.Com.” Accessed June 30, 2020. https://www.businessballs.com/change-management/personal-change-stages-john-fisher/.

Meier, Stephan, and Lea Cassar. “Stop Talking About How CSR Helps Your Bottom Line.” HBR, 31st January 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/stop-talking-about-how-csr-helps-your-bottom-line.

Montaque, T. (2020, 10th June). I’m a black tech CEO. Diversity shouldn’t be our end goal; ending the current corporate culture should. Fortune. https://fortune-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/fortune.com/2020/06/10/black-ceo-corporate-diversity-inclusion/amp/.

O’Neill Hayes, T. (2020, 12th May). The Outsized Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Minority Communities. American Action Forum. https://www.americanactionforum.org/research/the-outsized-impact-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic-on-minority-communities/.

Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies. Catalyst. (2020, 15th January). https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-sp-500-companies/.

Rangan, V. Kasturi, Lisa Chase, and Sohel Karim. “The Truth About CSR.” Harvard Business Review, 1st January 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-truth-about-csr.

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Yearby, R. The Impact of Structural Racism in Employment and Wages on Minority Women’s Health. American Bar Association. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-state-of-healthcare-in-the-united-states/minority-womens-health/.

Originally published at https://www.s4f.solutions on July 1, 2020.

A Social Entrepreneur | Futurist|Principal Advisor @ S4F™ Solutions™

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