As the coronavirus crisis continues to plague our city and its communities, it also exposes entrenched inequalities based on race and class. As D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has noted, health disparities among African Americans draw their roots from “slavery, racism [and] Jim Crow rules and laws,” creating tragic intergenerational health disparities.
Underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension are more widespread in the African American community, making people vulnerable to the deadly virus despite the fact that the community’s infection rate is the same as for the population as a whole. This increases the risk of hospitalization, intubation and the use of ventilators, with their attendant alarming survival rates.
In the District of Columbia, four in five fatalities are African American, despite constituting just under half of the District’s residents. Deaths have been highest in our most underserved neighborhoods. In Ward 8, in southeast D.C., there have been 7.5 deaths per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the city. Nine in 10 Ward 8 residents are African American. In Ward 3, in the District’s upper Northwest, African Americans constitute only one in 20 members of the population and the same fatality rate is 1.6, one-quarter of Ward 8’s rate, according to U.S. Census Bureau and D.C. Department of Health data.
Overall health inequalities are reflected clearly in life-expectancy data, as reported by the District government’s own “health equity” maps. Average longevity for affluent, mostly white Woodley Park residents in Northwest is 89.4 years compared to 68.2 years for the St. Elizabeths Southeast neighborhood — a difference of 21 years, making zip code more important than genetic code for health.
This pattern, heartbreakingly repeated in urban jurisdictions across the nation, has raised the visibility of these inequalities and how not all have benefited from scientific and medical advances equally. However, there is much the federal and District governments could do to help equalize them.
Access to adequate health care and health insurance continues to be a major problem, including where individuals cannot get coverage for pre-existing conditions. Exacerbating this, many African Americans are employed in low-paid jobs with no benefits, or unemployed and cut off from them completely.
While the District, unlike many states, has taken full advantage of the provisions of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, significantly reducing the rate of uninsured individuals to three percent last year, the latest available data broken down by ethnicity shows significant disparities. African-Americans are five times as likely to lack insurance as whites; Latinos, a significant share of whom are undocumented, are six times as likely to go without, U.S. Census Data and Kaiser Family Foundation analysis has found.
These health inequalities are compounded by basic educational disparities, which deprive minority and immigrant communities of the means to access quality health care, employment, college, and well-paying jobs that provide benefits. But while some progress has been made in education, gaping deficits remain.
There is the student achievement gap, which reflects poorer educational outcomes. In English language arts, some 28 percent of African American students meet or exceed statewide benchmarks for college- and career-readiness, compared to 85 percent of their white peers, reveals research from the D.C. Policy Center based on D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education data. Comparable numbers for math are 21 percent and 79 percent, respectively. Latino figures for both subjects are 48 percent.
This has improved somewhat in recent years — although the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that the nation’s capital has larger gaps than all other major U.S. cities.
Increasing assistance to students most at-risk of academic underachievement would help address the disparities revealed by the pandemic and woefully under-resourced households, as public education has had to move online and provide meals and other necessities outside of school.
D.C.’s charter schools, which provide tuition-free education to nearly half of the city’s public school students independently of the traditional school system, should be given the right to offer admission preference to at-risk students — which includes those who are homeless, are in foster care, qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The federal government has shamefully decided to treat the District as a territory rather than a state, per previous relief efforts, depriving the city of $725 million, despite D.C. contributing more dollars in federal income tax to the U.S. Treasury than 22 other states. This error must not be repeated.
This crisis with its attendant tragedy points the way to an overdue, more equitable settlement for District residents.
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.