Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell William Brooks says America’s legacy of racial discrimination means communities of color are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic on everything from health to economics to political disenfranchisement.

Featuring Cornell William Brooks
30 minutes and 41 seconds

First there was the shock of realizing that the COVID-19 pandemic would be widespread and lengthy. Now issues of race, equity, and the coronavirus are quickly coming to the fore, as data pours in showing how the virus is hitting minority communities the hardest.

Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and  Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, says historic systemic discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and healthy food, housing and employment disparities, and other issues have left communities of color uniquely vulnerable.

Discrimination means people in communities of color can’t follow many recommended individual actions for the pandemic including staying at home, working from home, stocking up on groceries, drive-through testing, and social distancing. Low-income “essential” workers, he says, have effectively become human buffers against the coronavirus for people with higher incomes.

There are also moral implications to unequal distribution of risk, including the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and in jails where people accused of crimes are waiting to be tried. A pandemic spreading in these “petri dish” situations means exposing potentially-innocent people to what amounts to a death sentence,  he says, not to mention the exposure facing correctional officers and staff.

Brooks also says the pandemic is also causing widespread disruption in the current election season, and that it has the potential to exacerbate the current trend toward minority disenfranchisement, both purposeful and unanticipated. He says the recent election debacle in Wisconsin, where more than 90% of polling places in some cities were closed and voters were forced to break social distancing in order to participate in the democratic process, was a warning to the country about how the pandemic endangers both democracy and lives.

“We are ill-prepared for November,” he says. “It's not enough for us to say we are in the midst of a pandemic and we can only concern ourselves with face masks and ventilators. We also have to be concerned about ballot boxes and polling places.”

After the pandemic is over and life starts returning to normal, Brooks says American will need to learn from the experience and make long-overdue societal shifts to keep the impact of events like this from being so severe and unevenly distributed the next time.

Hosted by

Thoko Moyo

Produced by

Ralph Ranalli
Susan Hughes

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Thoko Moyo: So you have said that there's insufficient focus on safeguarding the democratic processes during this COVID-19 response. We hear a lot about the economic stimulus, we hear about possible bailouts of companies that are in highly affected sectors. We know about all the concerns regarding the health response. But your question has been the fact that there isn't enough being said about protective gear from our democracy. What do you mean by that?

Cornell Brooks: So what we have are essentially two calendars that are converging. You've got the calendar of the COVID epidemic and the calendar of our democracy. We are ascending the curve of this pandemic even as we are progressing through our democratic calendar, in terms of primaries and the general election. And so, where we have a majority of the states under stay at home orders and we still have half of the democratic primaries who conduct as well as the democratic general election to conduct. And so, we literally have these calendars converging in a way that is in fact calamitous for our democracy when we meet. If you think about the fact that the Wisconsin primary was conducted in the midst of a pandemic, which is to say we had people essentially violating the CDC in order to participate in a democratic process of the United States of America. What I mean by that is they stood in line, socially undistanced, in order to participate in the democratic process, with one voter literally holding up a sign saying, "This is ridiculous." And this occurred as a consequence of the Supreme Court allowing this primary election to continue, even as you had people calling for it to be postponed, and a minority of the Supreme Court literally saying, "We're putting voters' lives at risk." This is literally the result of our not responding to both the pandemic and ongoing voter suppression. And so, here we have an election coming up in November where it may will be that having surmounted the curve, the curve may yet be ascending again.

Thoko Moyo: So, let's just talk about what happened with the primaries. The options were to, what you're saying, is that we could have postponed some of the primaries so people are not risking their lives, but there is a timeline, as you say. I mean, this has to happen before November. I mean, how would this ideally have worked?

Cornell Brooks: So let's think about this. We have states today that have mail-in voting. This is not a novel concept. It is not a new concept. And in fact, this has been a long proposed concept. And what has been the president's response to this? The president responds to this by saying not that mail-in voting is dangerous, not that mail-in voting will not ensure the health of the public, but rather mail-in voting will advantage Democrats, disadvantage Republicans, therefore we are opposed to it. That is not viable policy response, meaning we could use mail-in voting, we could have postponed the primary until we could fine tune and tweak mail-in voting. The point being here is, this pandemic has exposed the faults, the fissures, in our democracy. Why is it that, in our modern democracy, literally, quite literally, while we're using cell phones to communicate with one another, when it comes to the mechanics about democracy, we're literally using tin can and string. It's just that primitive. So what we're saying here is that, given that we are ill prepared with respect to the pandemic, we're also ill prepared with respect to conducting elections. Consider this. South Korea conducted an election about the time as Wisconsin. Having flattened the curve, having conducted universal testing, when they had people waiting in line to vote, they were spaced three feet apart, wearing face masks, and having the temperatures checked. None of that was true in Wisconsin.

Thoko Moyo: Oh, so effectively what you're saying is that the deficiencies that we've seen in general with the response are actually affecting the democratic process. Because when you talk about... So I totally get that. And then I just wanted to go back to this idea of maybe using technology, and sort of being in the 21st century. We had problems with technology when we tried that in the caucuses just very recently. So there is an issue just with the use of technology anyway when it comes to our democratic process.

Cornell Brooks: Yes. But if you look at, I believe it's Washington State, in terms of their use of mail-in voting, and there are other jurisdictions in the country which have used it, have fine tuned it, and have not uncovered any massive problems, and certainly no voter fraud, which is the boogeyman that is sometimes invoked to oppose the use of mail-in voting. But quite literally, across this country, just to be very clear about this, there've been studies literally of millions and millions of ballots cast, and we have discovered infinitesimally small numbers of in-person voter fraud. As I'm wanting to say, you're more likely to see Santa Claus standing next to the Tooth Fairy at ballot box than to encounter an actual instance of voter fraud.

Thoko Moyo: Okay. So let's talk about before we get to November. Another thing that's currently happening in the US is the census. And the census is part of the democratic process because this affects how resources, as you think about redistricting, it affects resources and just generally how the democratic process will flow. Talk about that a little bit.

Cornell Brooks: Yes, precisely. So we have not only once every four year presidential election, once every two year congressional elections, we also have once every 10 year census counts. And the census count is literally the map of our democracy, ensuring for the fair apportionment of congressional representation, the fair allocation of federal dollars and state dollars for schools or vital services, the full range of the needs of American citizens. Now, with that being said, in the midst of a pandemic where there are literal fears about responding to in person inquiries, two, where we have seen a rise in xenophobia in this country, a rise in hate crime, and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment coming from the federal government, mainly the White House.

Cornell Brooks: Now, the reason that's a concern is because the census depends on the response rate of the American citizens, the degree to which they respond to inquiries about not only how many people in the household, but who's in the household, and a whole variety of questions that really go to, how do we meet American needs. Now, where we have a pandemic where literally a majority of the country is not confident in the way it's being handled, the way it's being dressed, and the leadership that's being exercised, one of the primary functions about democracy, as defined by the Constitution, is conducting a census. That is a federal responsibility. So the point being here is, where you have low confidence in the government, where you have fear of xenophobia, where you are in the middle of a pandemic, it operates in a census suppressing way in the same way that you see voter suppression with respect to election. How do we respond to that?

One of the ways we respond to that is being very clear that the census is not and cannot be used as a tool to push immigrants out of the country, undocumented folks out of the country, being clear that the census is not a partisan, a cudgel, that it is a nonpartisan constitutionally dictated responsibility of the federal government to ensure the citizens are properly counted and responded to. So part of this shift is the shift in tone. It's a shift in the way we communicate with communities. And it also means that the Census Bureau must engage our nonprofit sector in a vigorous and transparent way, so that they can be emissaries and ambassadors for the message that you need to step up and be counted.

Why is this critically important? When I served as president and CEO of the NAACP three years ago, I met with the leadership of the Census Bureau. We were pushing them then to use the latest technology. We were pushing them then to better engage community organizations so that we might be emissaries and ambassadors to get people to respond. What we saw then, was they were late starting and ineffectively engaging grassroots organizations, community based organizations, to get the message out. The challenge now is, A, there must be a tone shift, there must be greater community engagement, greater use of technology, and to be clear. We need effective leadership with respect to the pandemic, meaning you cannot have inconsistent messages with respect to social distancing. You cannot have a 50 State Confederation strategy with respect to a global pandemic. In other words, the president and the White House and the CDC have to take the lead on this. So you cannot separate the response to the pandemic from the response rate to the census.

Thoko Moyo: So let's move into, in the US, November, we have the presidential elections. And you've talked about the arc of the pandemic being related to the arc of democracy coming up to November. What are you thinking when you say that?

Cornell Brooks: Well, think about this. So literally, we see in New York, hopefully a flattening of the curve, but we see in Washington, we see in New Orleans, we see in Detroit, in other cities across the country, the curve viciously vectoring upward, literally getting worse, more fatal, and also more disproportionate with respect to race and ethnicity. Black and brown people dying earlier, faster, in higher numbers. Now this also coincides, I should say, that this curve is related to the curve of our democracy, in the sense that the people who are least well positioned to exercise the vote are having their votes suppressed as we speak. And so, as we go into November with this pandemic, literally the people who are the most affected also have the most to lose in November, are being asked to vote under dangerous conditions. The policy response to this is literally getting on top of this pandemic, allocating resources such that states and cities that need the resources most get them in a timely fashion, having a coherent response, even as we do everything we can to make sure that people are able to vote in a safe way.

Thoko Moyo: But the voting in a safe way applies to everyone, regardless of whether you're a minority or not. I mean, everyone going to the polls in November, unless there are safety measures put in place, will be exposed and putting themselves at risk. So how are you distinguishing the impact on minorities, as it were, going to the polls?

Cornell Brooks: Well, here's the challenge. Where you have is, in the case of Wisconsin, and the election being held in the middle of a pandemic with a decreased number of polling places, so in other words, you are exacerbating, worsening, the lack of social distance. And so, the point being here is, we have seen over and over again that in communities of color, you have fewer polling places. So the point being here is you have to expand the number of polling places, put into place social distancing measures, implement categorical universal testing, and doing all that we can to flatten the curve, keep people at home until such time, if at such time, we need to call upon them to vote in an election.

Cornell Brooks: I would argue we need to use the time now to implement mail-in voting. Because here's the point. We've seen, in two respects, being ill prepared for pandemic has revealed the degree to which we're ill prepared for the pandemic on our democracy, quite literally. Meaning to the extent that since we discovered a few cases of COVID-19 right about the same time as Korea, and South Korea has seen the curve flatten, we're watching the curve go up. It has revealed that we are ill prepared for November. So the point being here, it's not enough for us to say, "We are in the midst of a pandemic, we can only concern ourselves with face masks and ventilators." We also have to be concerned about ballot boxes and polling places.

Thoko Moyo: Right. And be doing things now, for example, the practical things that you're suggesting, like making sure there are sufficient places for people to vote so that you don't have a lot of people going to one place, therefore exacerbating issues around social distancing. So what we do between now and November really matters.

Cornell Brooks: It matters tremendously. Because even if we are fortunate enough to see the number of cases flatten and diminish, all of the experts agree that warm weather is not a vaccine. And it may well be in the fall, things get worse. So if we remember the Yellow Fever pandemic of Colonial America in 1793, if we remember the Spanish flu of 1918, all we need to think about is the fact that in the summer it was bad, it got a little better, and then in the fall it became worse. So there's nothing to say that November will be better than April.

Thoko Moyo: And so you mentioned early on that this pandemic is disproportionately killing black and brown people. So maybe let's talk a little bit about that. What's behind it?

Cornell Brooks: So one of the things that we know is that the fatality of COVID-19, related to co-morbidities, so to the extent that people have asthma, or cardiovascular disease, or if they are, in fact, in poor health, that that drives the fatalities. So to the extent that the co-morbidities of COVID-19 are precisely the same maladies of the poor and communities of color, you have a convergence of literally the risk factors that put people at risk. And so, to the extent that children of color in cities have higher asthma rates, to the extent that people have cardiovascular disease and they are literally in a more vulnerable state, those illnesses, those challenges are more prevalent in communities of color. And so, the numbers that you're seeing now in Detroit, in New Orleans, in New York City, demonstrate very clearly that African-Americans are much more likely to get sick, and then when they get sick, they're much more likely to die.

Thoko Moyo: But what does that tell you? What's the larger conclusion that you're making about this? What's behind the high level of co-morbidities amongst people of color?

Cornell Brooks: A couple of things. Quite obviously, it shows the degree to which we're ill prepared for the pandemic also demonstrates the degree to which we're ill prepared to deal with the health challenges of communities of color. And so, what that means specifically is this. To the extent that we have ignored these problems, black children and brown children with asthma existed before January, existed before Wuhan, to the extent that we could not address and deal with those challenges. Those children, but certainly their parents, in those communities are much more at risk. And so what that means is we have to look at this beyond simply developing vaccines and treatments to COVID-19, but looking at those underlying mobilities and strengthening our healthcare system to address that.

The challenge here is this. If we know that the vaccine may take 18 months, what are we doing with respect to those who are the sickest and the most vulnerable? How are we safe guarding and protecting those communities? And let's be clear about this. To the degree to which we safeguard and secure the health of the least vulnerable, we secure and safeguard the health of a whole community and the whole country. Because what we know is you cannot ghetto-ize a contagion. You cannot segregate a contagion. To the extent that there are sick black and brown people, what that means is this a sick and non-black and brown New York City, and Detroit, and Memphis, and LA, and San Francisco, and Charleston, and a sick United States of America. We have to be very clear about this. We are long past the days where we can ignore what happened in Wuhan, and we certainly cannot ignore what's happening in Detroit and New York City.

Thoko Moyo: And it seems as though the government hasn't really been coming forward with the numbers, and sort of desegregating the numbers based on race and ethnicity. I mean, that would be helpful to know, just how the virus is affecting different groups of people.

Cornell Brooks: That's right. So just by way of example, where, if you look at Michigan, in the state of Michigan, African-Americans count for 14% of the population, but 33% of the COVID-19 cases, and 40% of all deaths.

Thoko Moyo: Wow.

Cornell Brooks: Think about that. So the point is literally, we have black and brown bodies being stacked up. So it's not just New York City wondering where do we buried the dead? The challenge is, what does the country do about all the fatalities, yes, but also the the fact that there are racial disparities with respect to those fatalities, driving those fatalities, making all of us more vulnerable? And so, it's a challenge. And then the other part of this is race and class converge. And what I mean by that is to the extent that African Americans represent 13% of the American population, we're 40% of the homeless. So poverty, race, and ethnicity intersect at that point of vulnerability, and certainly, at this point, COVID-19 stands in the midst of that juncture. And we've got it, as I said before, it's not merely about face masks, vaccines, and ventilators. Right now, we literally have to address those underlying morbidities. And the same logic that says we'll get to that later is the same logic that lead to us being as ill prepared as we are now.

Thoko Moyo: And I guess a scary thought is, today it's COVID-19, it could very well be something else in the coming years that exploits or unmasks those inequalities and institutional racism that has led us to where we are today.

Cornell Brooks: To the extent that literally we had the H1 epidemic, Zika, Ebola, MERS, SARS, before then, Yellow Fever, Spanish flu. Scientists have been predicting this for years, decades on end. And we understand in, as Dr. King put it, the global village in which we live in, it's such that we can't segregate our collective vulnerability. Those days are over.

Thoko Moyo: And I think that's a good segue, actually, to talking about the criminal justice system. Because when we talk about what's happening in our prisons, and seeing rates of transmission of COVID increasing in the prisons, there's an interconnectedness that I think isn't being talked about enough. We're almost seeing the prisons as not part of our community. Let's talk a little bit about what's going on in there, and what it means for everyone, not just for people who are in correctional facilities.

Cornell Brooks: That's right. That's right. So if we think about the fact that we have, in this country, the 50 States of America, various territories, and the District of Columbia. But among those states, are jails and prisons that are largely isolated from American society. And what we have discovered coming to appreciate over the last few weeks is that our prisons and jails are literally Petri dishes of contagion. But it's not merely prisoners, not merely detainees, but the people who serve the food, the people who secure the facilities, who are going back and forth between those prisons and jails. It's not merely the guilty, but also the innocent. Anyone who is charged with a crime and can not come up with the money for bail and is sitting behind bars, you have innocent people who can literally be subject to a death penalty, who are likely to come back to their communities. So in other words, these aren't people who are going to be in jail, charged, legally innocent, not convicted, who are going to be there for 20 years. They may be there for a few months, for the better part of a year, but they are coming back to their community.

Thoko Moyo: So you're saying that, let's say, a teenager who, I don't know, steals a hubcap and is in jail, has the same risk factors as a serial killer who was charged, found guilty, and is there for life.

Cornell Brooks: That's right. So the point being is, the innocent who are charged but not convicted come back to our communities, but actually, 95% of the people in prison come back to their community. And what we know is, on a daily basis, the people who work in those facilities come back to their communities. And so, our jails and prisons are interwoven into American society. So when we have 2.3 million Americans behind bars being served, being guarded by personnel who are going back to cities and towns all across the country. And the most infectious facility in this country, outside of a hospital, is a jail in Chicago. So the question you have to ask yourself is, we have our frontline healthcare workers putting their lives on the line to protect Americans, but we also have guards and cooks and chaplains and correction staff guarding prisoners all across the country, literally returning to their homes every night. So if you're not concerned about them, you have to be concerned about us.

Thoko Moyo: And so, the natural conclusion for that would be, in addition to other things you can do, we should be giving protective gear to the people that are going in and working in the prisons. But we don't even have enough for healthcare workers, so how do we get that for other people doing essential work outside of the healthcare system?

Cornell Brooks: It's more than that. Certainly, we want to, at a bare minimum, provide protective equipment for people working in jails and prisons. But beyond that, we need to have fewer people in the jails and prisons, meaning children who have not been convicted of a crime, who don't pose a risk to society, they don't need to be there. People who are elderly, infirm, and who don't pose a risk to society shouldn't be there. We shouldn't be sending people in the jails and prisons if we can avoid it right now. We have police departments around the country who are literally arresting people for serious crimes and not arresting people for less serious crimes, literally because they don't want to expose our prisoners to risk or expose the country to risk. The point being here is, we're going to have to rethink what we do in the middle of this crisis. And I'll just note this. Crime continues to go down. Why? You have people going home, and you have police arresting people for serious crimes, not the minor crimes. The point being here is, I just want to emphasize this, it's not about them, it's about us.

Thoko Moyo: Got it. But people will always draw that distinction. Because, I mean, there are people who should be behind bars because they're dangerous, and they're committed within the system. And absolutely, the justice system has worked right. And of course, as you say, there are some that shouldn't be in there. But I guess the question also becomes, well how do you, this is a term that I've heard, depopulate the prisons? I mean, is this something that's been done before? Is this a time to be experimenting? Because of course, you don't want to bring people out of prisons who should be in prison.

Cornell Brooks: That's right. And I mean, we're not talking about putting ax murderers and serial killers on the street. But let's think about this. In this country, over the last 10 years, we have decreased the youth population in the juvenile justice system, the juvenile incarceration rate, by over 50% with no uptick in crime. So in other words, we literally have cut the number of young people behind bars, for everything from stealing hubcaps to assault, by over half. And we've seen no uptick in crime. The point being here is, there are ways for us to literally cut the number of people in prison by 25%, by 40%, by half, without driving up the crime rate. That allows us to keep society safer, have more money for things that actually help society, and not the least of which is investments in our healthcare system and the ways they safeguard us against a pandemic, and safeguard us against the everyday maladies of the poor.

We could do this. And the reason why we know that we can do this is because we have states like not only Connecticut, but also Texas, that are closing facilities, decreasing the number of people behind bars. The point being here is governors are already doing this. We just need more to do more, and for Americans to appreciate the fact that you can both be safe, spend less money, and I'll certainly note this, and ensure more resources to invest in other places of our democracy, maybe the healthcare system.