The Coronapacalypse: Why COVID-19 Targets Redlined Black Neighborhoods in Hypersegregated Cities

The coronavirus pandemic is currently ravaging America and ripping through redlined Black neighborhoods. In cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Buffalo, COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire.

This is not random. Coronavirus - like nearly all diseases or conditions (be it HIV, toxic lead exposure, or food insecurity) - takes root in the neighborhoods that have been redlined and subprimed. Coronavirus is erupting in the places that have been marginalized and demonized in the construct of American Apartheid.

The data below from the University of Chicago’s U.S. COVID-19 Atlas reveal the pattern. As you can see, 7 of the 12 top COVID-19 hotspots in terms of case regional clusters (#1), are in cities with histories or a current status of hypersegregation.

When examining the population-adjusted regional clusters (#2), 6 out of the 15 regional clusters have histories or a current status of hypersegregation. Whether looking at case numbers or prevalence, the legacy of hypersegregation stands out.

Of course, additional statistical analysis are needed to show whether or not there is an association even after controlling for other factors such as income inequality, poverty, and public health spending per capita. But suffice it to say at this early stage, it’s pretty clear that Black people and Black neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The reason — after the inception of community spread (often in nursing homes, another vulnerable population) — is plain. Hypersegregation results in the hyper-accumulation of resources in White neighborhoods and the hyper-deprivation of resources Black neighborhoods in core cities and surrounding suburbs.

Racial segregation was never simply about separating White and Black people from each other in America. It was and remains about which neighborhoods have access to vital resources, ranging from private bank lending to public goods — such as quality public schools, roads, sewer systems, and of course, public health.

This racial segregation from resources means many Black essential workers are stuck in jobs where they can’t telework and have to travel longer distances to work where jobs are located. This means a larger percentage of Black workers are in low wage jobs that don’t offer sick leave. To secure food in redlined Black neighborhoods, Black people have to travel longer distances to buy groceries due to food apartheid.

In her powerful book Segregation by Design, Jessica Trounstine conducted an empirical analysis of racial segregation in 3,113 cities over a 30-year period. She found that as racial segregation increased in American cities, municipal spending on various public good DECREASED. Of course, redlined Black neighborhoods bore the brunt of this discriminatory decreased spending.

From Jessica Trounstine’s book Segregation by Design, page 155–156

So as the coronapacalypse unfolds, people in America should understand that the issue with COVID-19's racially disparate impact is due to structural factors rooted in American Apartheid. The coronapacalypse is manifested in the nature of America’s historical resource deprivation in redlined Black neighborhoods in cities with legacies of hypersegregation.

America’s federal, state, and local public officials must craft an emergency relief package that addresses the legacies of redlining and hypersegregation if it hopes to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. And it must move rapidly, because the clock is ticking…

GIF from the University of Chicago’s Center for Spatial Data Science. The map illustrates coronavirus hotspots in red.

Author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.” Founder of the Black Butterfly Project.