Why People of Color are Contracting and Dying of COVID-19 at Higher Rates


Centre for American Progress (CAP)

Release Date

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


Over the past several days there have been many reports that people of color, especially Black Americans, are contracting and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts. As jurisdictions release demographic information on COVID-19 cases, it is important to provide the public with accurate data that could help explain why the numbers of infections and deaths might be higher in African American communities. Too often, the lack of accurate information has led to misunderstanding, fear and hysteria.    

Epidemics, like most emergencies, shed a light on inequality.  COVID-19 is no different. It has highlighted racial disparities at every level. This coronavirus is showing us what structural racism looks like in real time. Years of housing, education and workplace segregation have put people of color, Black Americans specifically, at greater risk for exposure to the virus. Environmental racism and limited access to health care have contributed to health disparities including high rates of asthma and diabetes in some communities.  All of these factors combined make this pandemic extremely dangerous for Americans of color.  

It’s important to note that Americans of color were already in a precarious situation prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Experts note that longstanding economic and health inequities have contributed to Black Americans dying from coronavirus at far higher rates than their white peers. Take a look at the data:

  • In Michigan, Black residents are just 14% of the state population but 40% of coronavirus deaths. 
  • In North Carolina, Black residents are 22% of the state population but 35% of coronavirus deaths. 
  • In Illinois, Black residents are just 15% of the state population but 43% of coronavirus deaths. 
    • Black people are just 30 percent of Chicago residents, but approximately 68 percent of Chicago residents who have died from coronavirus.
  • In Milwaukee County, Wis., Black residents are 26% of the county population but 70% of coronavirus deaths.

As of now, there is less data to show that other racial or ethnic groups are contracting or dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans. However, it is important to note that states that are home to large Latinx, Native, and American Indian/Alaska Native populations such as Arizona, Nevada, and Texas have not yet reported data. 

As you look at the numbers and begin writing stories about the health impacts and outcomes of COVID-19, it is important to remind readers that these disparities are not a result of personal choices, but longstanding public policies at the federal, state and local level that created a system of government-sponsored segregation. Here are some key points that we recommend including: 

  1. People of color disproportionately reside in densely populated metropolitan areas that could increase exposure to the coronavirus. 
  • Segregation has restricted people of color to crowded urban neighborhoods for decades – neighborhoods that are more likely to lack green spaces and grocery stores and have substandard housing than similarly situated white neighborhoods. 
  • Social distancing guidelines are harder for people of color, who are overrepresented in service industry sector jobs, more likely to rely on public transportation, and less likely to be able to work from home. 
  1. Higher rates of serious chronic health conditions make the coronavirus potentially more dangerous for people of color.
  • People of color endure higher rates of exposure to air pollution from automobiles and refineries due to decades of structural and environmental racism. 
    • According to a recent study, people residing in areas with high levels of fine particular matter are 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than those in low pollution areas.
  • Approximately 24% of American Indian/Alaska Native people, 23% of multiracial Americans, and 18% of Black Americans have been diagnosed with asthma. As many as 18% of American Indian/Alaska Native people, 15% of Black Americans, and 12% of Hispanic and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. These conditions increase the risk of severe illness if exposed to the coronavirus. 
  1. Barriers in the health care system may prevent people of color from obtaining necessary care.
  • Despite the gains of healthcare coverage for people of color under the Affordable Care Act, many still lack coverage across the country. 
  • According to a new Center for American Progress analysis of CDC data, 16% of Black people, 20% of Hispanic people, 19% of American Indian/Alaska Native people, and 18% of Asian Americans were unable to see a doctor in 2018 due to cost. By contrast, just 10% of white Americans were unable to see a doctor due to cost. 

Related Resources: 

"Coronavirus Compounds Inequality and Endangers Communities of Color" by Connor Maxwell

"The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Racial Wealth Gap" by Danyelle Solomon and Darrick Hamilton

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