WASHINGTON – COVID-19 has spared no demographic group as it has swept across the United States, but far from the “great equalizer” it was once made out to be, mounting evidence shows that the pandemic has hit communities of color especially hard.
As the virus has spread, nationwide protests have called further attention to racial inequities across American society.
When Congress returned to the Capitol last week to start shaping another round of coronavirus relief spending, Senate Democrats unveiled a sweeping, $350 billion package dubbed the Economic Justice Act meant to address racial disparities with both short- and long-term investments in communities of color.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee charged with health, education and labor issues and one of the bill’s architects, said Tuesday the pandemic has made it clear the injustice that has fueled a summer of demonstrations is “much deeper and broader” than just the police violence that sparked the protests.
“There are so many disparities that we’re seeing because of COVID-19,” she said in an interview Tuesday, “whether it’s health, or income, or housing, or so much more. And those inequities and the systemic racism that created them aren’t new. They’re as old as our country is.”
Data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention shows large racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates, with Black and Hispanic Americans at significantly higher risk than their white counterparts. Spokane County’s Marshallese community represents a disproportionate share of coronavirus cases, and Latinos represent 44% of cases in Washington state despite being just 13% of the state’s population.
The pandemic has also exacerbated existing disparities. Overall unemployment fell to 11% in June, down from 13.3% in May, but the Black and Hispanic jobless rates are significantly higher, at 15.4% and 14.5% respectively, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I just felt this was an important step that we should take as a nation right now,” Murray said, “to provide relief and to really start dealing with the longer-term issues that our country needs to face.”
The Democrats’ bill, which they call in a news release “an important down-payment” to address “systemic racism and historic underinvestment in communities of color,” has two parts. The first would spend $135 billion on child care, mental health, primary care and jobs to help communities of color cope with the immediate effects of the pandemic.
The second component would invest another $215 billion in infrastructure, including schools and high-speed internet; in expanding Medicaid coverage; and on tax credits for renters and home buyers. Disparities in home ownership are a major factor in a racial wealth gap that left the average white family’s net worth 10 times higher than the typical Black family in 2016.
The senators say the bill is meant to complement, not replace, the $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package House Democrats passed in May. Negotiations between lawmakers and White House officials kicked into high gear on Tuesday after Republicans unveiled their $1 trillion counteroffer.
Murray said she would like to see some of the Economic Justice Act’s targeted provisions end up in an eventual compromise package, but she conceded the GOP was unlikely to support the legislation, which instead sends a message about what Democrats want to do if they win control of the White House and perhaps the Senate in November.
“I don’t know how much the Republicans are interested in actually doing anything on (passing the Economic Justice Act) right now,” Murray said, “but certainly I would love that. If that can’t happen, I think it lays the groundwork of what we need to be doing as we move forward in this country into next year and beyond.”
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