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Coronavirus Update: Diversity experts say COVID-19 has exacerbated class, racial disparities

WVU Today Release:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Face coverings, one of the recommended strategies to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, can evoke “mental gymnastics” for some groups—particularly those in communities who are already viewed with suspicion, according to a diversity expert at West Virginia University.

This suspicion arises when groups are perceived as “other” or “different.” In many residential areas that are isolated and not as racially diverse, particularly white communities, mistrust may arise or become heightened toward nonwhite groups, Spenser Darden, director of Diversity Initiatives and Community Engagement, said.

“There are lots of questions about, ‘How do I cover my face? What message does that send?’” Darden said. “Everybody is just trying to be safe. That’s what it comes down to, but that looks very different in how people get to experience that safety, and what kind of safety they’re going to experience when they cover their mouth.” 

When this mistrust leads to police intervention, racial disparities arise. During the last decade, people of color have been more likely to encounter violence or harassment from police or authorities. One incident which gained national attention was the February 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, shot Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, because he was “acting suspicious” while wearing a hoodie.

While a recommended strategy for reducing the spread of COVID-19 is wearing a mask, some people hesitate because they are members of a group already viewed with suspicion. (WVU Graphic/Aira Burkhart)

As a black man himself, Darden said he’s highly conscious of the face covering he selects.

“I make the intentional decision when I wear a face mask that it’s one of the medical-looking ones,” Darden said. “I want people to understand I’m not a threat.”

But Darden recognizes that having access to a medical-style mask is a privilege, as his partner is in healthcare. Others may have to rely on homemade face coverings, such as DIY masks and bandanas. But particular colors of bandanas can be problematic, too.

Majorie Fuller, director of WVU Center for Black Culture and Research, said depending on where you live, some colors can be perceived as threatening because of their association with criminal activity, discrimination or intimidation.   

“Because of this, certain types of clothing or colors can leave people with feelings of fear, even if those feelings are not warranted,” Fuller said. “We have to remember that feelings are non-negotiable — they are what they are, so I find it understandable that there may be some hesitance around wearing certain colors or patterns on protective wear.”

She encourages people to recognize that stereotypes aren’t always true. But sometimes, she said, those lessons can only be learned through life experiences or in classroom settings with faculty members who truly understand. 

Class disparities

Class disparities have also arisen during the novel coronavirus pandemic. For individuals who are or are perceived to be East Asian, they may be facing stigma due to the origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Asian Americans who wear medical masks may be inaccurately assumed to be sick.

“You look somebody in the eye to build familiarity and trust, even with people you don’t have a formal relationship with,” Darden said. “Face coverings and physical distancing can inhibit that. Often, face coverings are associated with criminality. Then, when you combine that with social dynamics of race and gender and socioeconomic class, you’re combining all these factors on people that increase discomfort and lack of trust.”

Even intra-racially, Darden said discrepancies can arise. Before the outbreak, medical masks were often used by Asian manicurists in nail salons. He said this class dynamic may cause Asian individuals to prefer homemade face coverings, so they “present” as a certain status.  

Class disparities have also arisen among those who can work from home and those who cannot. A New York Times poll reported higher earners and whites are far more likely to say they can work from home during the pandemic than lower earners and black and Latino Americans.

“Think of how compensation is structured in the U.S.,” Darden poses. “If I’m an hourly employee and I’m not working, that also means I’m not getting paid. It’s the way we structured our society that disproportionately impacts those who are the most affected.”

And as businesses begin to reopen, many workers will have to choose between exposing themselves to the pandemic or losing their jobs. Some of the furloughed workers have been able to collect unemployment, but if their workplace reopens, not returning to work will be the equivalent of quitting. The New York Times reported that these disempowered workers are disproportionately comprised of people of color, but include lower-income white workers, too.

“The people who are in these particular roles, they’re so devalued and so disempowered from a structural level, their own health and safety is not only not prioritized by who they work for, but they’re affected in not being able to prioritize it for themselves,” Darden said.

He said the pandemic has highlighted the way our society values people. People often feel valued by how they’re compensated — through salaries, healthcare, sick leave and more. The 2019 National Compensation Survey found that paid sick leave becomes scarcer the less money one makes. Pew Research Center reported 92% of workers in the top quarter of earnings (meaning hourly wages greater than $32.21) have access to some form of paid sick leave, versus only 51 percent of workers earning wages in the lowest quarter ($13.80 or less). Among the lowest-earning tenth — those whose wages are $10.80 an hour or less — 31 percent have paid sick leave.

Darden suggests challenging that fundamental structure moving forward.

“As we think about healthcare and salaries, maybe we think about universalizing some of those things,” Darden said. “How do we make sure the way we’ve organized our society for people to function in — if that changes — that we don’t leave them to their own devices? That’s where these disparities and inequalities get magnified.” 

Looking forward

Right now, as everyone is trying to stay as safe as possible, Darden encourages folks to be more trusting of one another.

“We have to trust people do not have ill intent. We have to trust that everybody’s trying to do the best they can. If their face is or is not covered, understand that’s a decision they had to make, rather than ascribing ill intent,” he said.

“We also have to recognize the things that we designate as being markers of trust or safety are flawed anyway. This is really going to be a good reflection time for us as a society and as individuals to recognize that maybe we’ve been taught or what we’ve learned have been shortcuts. They might have been useful, but they’re incomplete. If we rely on them too heavily, we can be missing things or doing harm to folks.”

As she reflects and looks forward, Fuller is taking an optimistic view. While she recognizes the pandemic has affected different groups in different ways, it’s still an unprecedented event that everyone has experienced. 

“I’ve seen expressions of kindness across races, across cultures,” Fuller said. “It is my hope that we grow from this as people, as human beings, that this experience shows us how vulnerable we all are.”

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