By Rupen Fofaria

November 4, 2020

What we learned about health disparity

The conference began with clarification: that COVID-19 and the protests after the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis merely exposed pre-existing inequity.

“We are living in interesting times, but I will say that they’re not necessarily surprising times,” said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a researcher and medical school professor at Duke.

“If you understand the historical context, as well as the contemporary manifestations of systemic racism, then you would definitely be disheartened, but you would not be surprised by the disparities that have been laid bare due to COVID-19 and the state-sanctioned violence that resulted in the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more than 160 other Black people killed by police in 2020.”

Bentley-Edwards and a colleague at Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, William “Sandy” Darity, focused on pre-existing health and wealth disparities in the Black and Brown communities.

Bentley-Edwards listed several comorbidities for COVID-19, including diabetes, obesity, asthma, and pulmonary disease.

“You find African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans carry a disproportionate burden in either the prevalence or the mortality of these conditions,” she said. “So in many ways, COVID-19 reflects how, especially for these conditions that we know how to treat, Black, Latinos and Native Americans are more likely to die or be severely ill than their white counterparts.”

While these disparities affect the ability of certain students and educators to safely resume in-person education, the issue is a double-edged sword, the Duke panelists said. That’s because wealth inequity also makes it harder for these communities to learn remotely.

What we learned about wealth disparity

The average wealth disparities Darity described between Black and white families are staggering, with the average Black household having about $800,000 less net worth than the average white household.

Darity uses wealth to examine economic disparity rather than income because wealth — the difference between what you own and owe — is a primary indicator of the ability to withstand emergencies.

Income (and to be clear, Darity said there are significant disparities there, too) is tied to continued employment and represents future money owed for work done.

According to the Public School Forum, 72% of Black and Brown students in North Carolina’s public schools have parents who lack secure employment, compared with 21% of white students.

What does that mean for education? For one thing, lower-wealth households have had less access to opportunities for higher-quality education and access to post-secondary education.

But there are more immediate impacts, too.