St. Louisans learned last Wednesday that all of the first 12 coronavirus victims in the city were African American. As of Saturday morning, five additional deaths had been reported in the city, including an African American man and woman — meaning that African Americans comprised over 80% of the city’s reported deaths. This announcement follows reports of similarly troubling racial disparities in pandemic-related deaths across the country.
As social scientists who study racial inequalities in health and social outcomes, we are saddened but not surprised by these numbers. Certainly, contemporary factors must be taken into account in interpreting these disparities, but we also must not forget the important role the nation’s history continues to play in the present.
As a research team dedicated to examining enduring legacies of racial violence, we recognize that the nation’s racial history is a shameful and brutal one. St. Louis’ own history is no exception. The city’s plot, as urban historian Colin Gordon says, has been “irretrievably racial in its logic and its consequences.”
What lines have dictated that plot? The northernmost port in America’s domestic slave trade, St. Louis’ history is deeply tied to the history and haunting legacy of racial terror and dispossession throughout the Mississippi River valley. Access to neighborhoods deemed most desirable was legally denied to African American residents for decades through race-restrictive deed covenants, redlining and other discriminatory mortgage practices, and urban renewal initiatives that razed once-vibrant communities like Mill Creek Valley and concentrated working-class African American families into segregated public housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe.
Such practices have long been underwritten by enforcing bodies such as the city’s and county’s police departments and municipal courts, which — as investigations into racist predatory legal practices in Ferguson and elsewhere so viscerally demonstrated — have willfully exploited their own citizens to fund the very practices that reproduce racial inequity. Racial violence has provided a consistent through-line as well, from the 19th-century lynchings of Francis McIntosh and John Buckner, to the 1917 race massacre in nearby East St. Louis, to the 36 African American residents killed by the police between 2013 and 2018.
Across the county, the preexisting conditions that produce racial inequality in infection and death are patterned by the disparities produced from these histories. These racial inequalities are further compounded by policy decisions that ensure a lack of access to health care for our most vulnerable populations — including the failure of Medicaid expansion in Missouri even when estimates suggest such a measure would lead to state budget savings, and the closing of life-saving health care centers, such as the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, in racially segregated areas of the city.
Social scientists have shown that a history of racial violence and the racist policies and practices that reinforce this history serve as fundamental causes of the health disparities that disproportionately impact African Americans today. Residential segregation along racial lines, for example, limits access to grocery stores and safe places to exercise and increases proximity to air and noise pollution. By not engaging how our present crisis is defined by these aspects of our past, American society runs the risk of victim blaming and misidentifying the root causes of the health differences that are evident.
As a society, Americans often want to ignore this racial past and look toward a better future. When they do draw from the past, they often cherry-pick our victories, such as St. Louis’ smart approach to social distancing during the 1918 flu pandemic. Unlike countries such as Germany and South Africa, Americans choose not to fully reckon with shameful parts of our history, largely avoiding calls to teach about, memorialize, and atone for the nation’s many racial atrocities.
But, like those countries, the nation can also learn from its failures. When the nation begins to turn attention to repair in the wake of this latest crisis, it’s essential to face this history to heal communities and address the many injustices that perpetuate health and other disparities. If the nation does not commit to truth-telling and a reparative approach, society will again see the same headlines around the next health crisis. James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Facing our past is the first step.
Hedy Lee and David Cunningham are sociology professors at Washington University. Geoff Ward, professor of African and African American Studies, and postdoctoral scholar Sarah Gaby also contributed.