Trumka: COVID-19 and the Symptoms of Structural Discrimination in Our Society

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today delivered the following remarks at a town hall on civil rights and COVID-19:

Thank you, Tefere (Gebre) for that introduction, and thank you for leading this town hall. This is an important conversation. Quite frankly, it’s a long overdue one.

We often hear people say that the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. We know that’s far from the truth. It has, and it will continue to. We’ve known for decades that women and minority communities don’t have equal access to health care. These inequities come in many forms. Hospital systems don’t open locations in majority-black communities. If they do, they don’t provide adequate resources. And when it’s time to cut budgets, these locations are the first to go on the chopping block. Women earn less but are expected to work the same hours as men and take care of children more. LGBTQ+ people are treated as second-class citizens, unable to donate blood to help those in need or serve the country they love.

This week, our nation is mourning another instance of a deadly encounter between police and an unarmed person of color. George Floyd’s unnecessary death at the hands of Minneapolis police was a preventable tragedy. What happened to George Floyd, what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, has happened for centuries. The difference is now we have cell phones. We can watch what is happening. And we can’t turn our heads and look away because we feel uncomfortable.

Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community. We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality.

Inequities exist. For far too long, we, as a nation, avoided saying that out loud. We avoided doing anything. We can no longer be silent. We can no longer sit still.

COVID-19 is shining a light on the inequities that marginalized communities face each day. Black fatality rates from COVID are more than double the rate of white fatalities. It is even worse in communities with large black populations. In Chicago, African Americans make up 30% of the population but 70% of the city’s COVID fatalities. Infections among Native Americans are spiking in urban areas like Salt Lake City, Seattle and San Jose.

It is hard to get care in an overcrowded hospital. It is even harder when the nearest hospital is miles away and there are no reliable public transit options. Communities of color are overlooked when there isn’t a public health crisis. That’s unjust, unfair and unsafe. Today, it’s a national tragedy.

The health disparities represent one piece of the puzzle. When we take the wider view, we see the domino effect of COVID—and how different communities are affected.

When schools are shut down, who takes care of the kids? More often than not, the burden falls on women. That is one reason why the unemployment rate among women is three points higher than the rate among men. When hotels and restaurants close, who loses a job? Overwhelmingly, the answer is people of color. When transit systems remain open, who remains on the front lines? In many cases, African Americans. About 40% of New York City’s transit workers are black, far more than their proportion of the city’s entire population. Meanwhile, nearly 2,500 MTA workers tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 123 people have lost their lives.

According to a Pew poll, 61% of Hispanic Americans and 44% of black Americans said that because of COVID-19, they or someone in their home lost a job. COVID-19 is putting a disproportionate amount of people of color at risk. Killing them. Taking away their jobs and income.

We know this disparity must be fixed. When the evidence is so overwhelming, we know there are larger issues at play. It isn’t enough for us to make some small fixes while papering over the larger inequities.

We must acknowledge that what is happening today is a symptom of structural discrimination in our society. It wasn’t caused by COVID-19, but COVID is making it worse. So much of our focus is on how to beat the virus. What happens after that? Getting back to normal means living in an imbalanced world. We can do better. We must do better.

As we identify ways to beat the virus, we should also find ways to be fairer. We can overhaul housing and city planning policies by ending redlining. That will help underserved neighborhoods get access to care. We can fix our infrastructure so public transit is available in every community. We can change paid leave policies so mothers—and yes, fathers, too—can take care of their children.

We can either live through history or we can shape it.

Structural discrimination exists in red states and blue states. It has festered for generations. We can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of it overnight. But we can acknowledge the harm it causes and the people it hurts. Then we can work to fix it.

Let’s use this national moment of problem-solving to solve one of our most pernicious and persistent ones. Let’s root out discrimination and all its consequences. Otherwise, we’ll be having the same conversation during the next crisis.

Tefere, back to you.