The racially disproportionate effect of the Covid-19 crisis in this country and a recent wave of senseless police killings by blacks and high profile guards may seem unrelated.
But, in fact, they are related. The two phenomena collided as a tragic reminder of how states have consistently and continuously failed black people in this country.
It is the state's policy – criminal and health – that leaves blacks exposed and vulnerable and with little recourse to security or justice.
Certainly, the federal government played a major role in oppressing and discriminating against blacks from the beginning. The Constitution, as originally written, is a completely racist document, with its three-fifths rule and the effective establishment of the Electoral College, a move placate slave owners.
It was the federal government that allowed Banco Freedman to fail and Reconstruction to fail.
But during the civil rights movement, the federal government also became the black people's greatest guard against its greatest oppressors: the states.
Slavery was a specific issue for the colonies that would eventually become states. Even some states that did not want slavery also did not want black residents. Oregon was an anti-slavery state, but it also passed a law in the 1840s excluding even free blacks to live in the state. Any black person who refused to leave was subject to lashes.
When California was drafting its constitution in the 1850s, some delegates, inspired by the example of Oregon, also tried to include a provision excluding blacks from the state. Finally failed.
After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, there was a disease epidemic and severe hunger among the newly freed slaves. They had nothing and could not take care of themselves. As Martin Luther King lamented a 1967 Stanford speech: “This is why Frederick Douglass could say that the emancipation of the Negro was freedom from hunger, freedom from the winds and rains from the sky, freedom without roofs to cover their heads. He went on to say that it was freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and hunger at the same time.
The federal government begged states to take care of those who were previously enslaved. The states refused, insisting that their resources were already exhausted by wounded white soldiers returning from the war. Nobody filled the void. Jim Downs, history professor and author, estimates that a whole room of the four million former slaves fell ill or died between 1862 and 1870.
It was the states that rushed to convene constitutional conventions after the reconstruction was allowed to fail, in an effort to establish white supremacy forever.
It was the states that established and maintained Jim Crow.
States manage voting and, by extension, also manage voter suppression, usually aimed at depriving black voters. They also attract congressional districts and are responsible for gerrymandering, which often weakens black voting power.
Mass incarceration is largely a state and local issue. Only a small fraction of the people incarcerated in America are federal prisoners. States also manage state criminal codes. It was a state criminal code that one of the prosecutors in the Ahmaud Arbery case used to defend not taking action.
These state laws are a big part of why there are few arrests, prosecutions or convictions in these cases.
Donald Trump's horrendous failures to deal with the Covid-19 crisis are clear and painful. But one of the reasons the crisis is causing so much damage to black populations is that many of these black people have pre-existing health conditions, conditions that predate Trump. Many of these conditions are a direct result of racial, discriminatory housing, employment and public health policies as a causal or exacerbating factor.
When the Affordable Assistance Act was passed, many states with the highest percentages of black residents refused to expand Medicaid under the plan. Most of these states were in the south. But neglect and oppression of blacks in matters affecting their health is hardly a phenomenon in the south alone.
As John C. Austin recently wrote for the Brookings Institution:
“The pandemic is dispelling the illusion that racism in the North – manifested in practices like redlining, writing agreements and changing the boundaries of public schools when black children started mixing with white children – was at least not as violent as lynching , fire hoses and bomb attacks that characterized racism in the south. Almost overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic turned racism historically institutionalized in industrial cities in the Midwest into a murder weapon. "
Even when local mayors want to be more cautious in protecting black populations, they are often replaced as the mayor of Atlanta by the governor of Georgia.
People like to talk about "the system" at times like these, as if it were a unit with the same power to inflict pain. But it is not. Some levels have much more impact than others. The states in these United States are now the main instruments of black pain and oppression.
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