Fighting Covid as Systemic Violence

CJ Trowbridge


USP 515 Environmental Justice

Fighting Covid as Systemic Violence

Groups of people are not equal. Groups share unequal burdens which can limit their opportunity and resources while also increasing their exposure to harm. I will explore the unequal air pollution burden imposed on some groups, and the knock-on effects which lead to disparate covid impacts. I will then connect the efforts being made to solve the problem with what I see as the likely solution we will eventually reach.

It has been said that while covid does not see systemic injustices like racism, it does expose racism and other forms of systemic injustice in the world. (Woodruff) This is because there are many factors which contribute to elevated covid risk, and almost all of these factors are not distributed evenly among groups of people. For example, particulate matter in the air from things like road pollution leads to a dramatically increased risk of death from covid for people who live in polluted neighborhoods. (Wu)

When we see the AQI reported for smoke from wildfires, we are usually seeing the number of micrograms per cubic meter of particulates with a size of 2.5 microns. This number is called the PM2.5 and it also comes from things like vehicle exhaust. (EPA) Research by X Wu at Harvard this year found that an increase of just one microgram per cubic meter leads to an 8% increase in the risk of death from covid. (Wu)

Let’s look at a concrete example. There are two major freeways which run parallel across the city of Oakland. One of them passes through rich white neighborhoods in the Oakland hills. The other passes through poorer Black and Latino neighborhoods in the lowlands. About half a century ago, the rich white neighborhoods in the Oakland hills “temporarily” banned truck traffic on the freeway that goes through those neighborhoods. This ban has since been made permanent. (Pimentel) The effect of this ban is that all the freight trucks have to drive instead through the poorer black neighborhoods. This creates extreme differences in pollution between black and white neighborhoods in Oakland. As a direct result, according to the attached report from the Alameda County Department of Public Health, the average black person in Oakland is thirty times more likely to have a respiratory disorder than the average white person. The report also found that the average black person lives fourteen years less than the average white person because of these and other environmental disparities imposed on black communities. This is a clear example of protection from harm; wealthy white communities recognize the threat posed by air pollution and choose to shift that threat to poorer black communities. This protects white people at the direct expense of black people. This is systemic violence.

With this historical backdrop and the evidence for a clear connection between air pollution and increased risk from covid, it should come as no surprise that we are seeing stark differences today in the covid outcomes of black and white people. A recent report from the California Department of Public Health showed that black people were hospitalized for covid at about 250% the rate of non-Hispanic whites. (Crowley) The report also showed that while black people make up just six percent of California’s population, they account for 11% of the deaths from covid. (Crowley) This already high death rate has gotten much worse in the last few months since the report was published, with current accounts of the black covid death rate reaching as high as 600% versus non-Hispanic white. (Tsai)

In the words of Scientific American’s Jennifer Tsai, “Covid 19’s disparate impacts are not a story about race. They’re a story about racism.” This situation didn’t happen on accident or for unknown reasons. Wealthy white communities made a deliberate choice to shift harms onto black communities and treat them as sacrifice zones. This practice of moving harms onto less powerful communities is called toxic colonialism. We have centuries of examples throughout American and global history of this same pattern playing out. It’s not just air pollution that leads to these disparate impacts for black people; it’s the legacy of slavery, it’s the imposition of hundreds of years of generational poverty, the lack of access to healthcare, the lack of access to nutritious foods, the exposure to systemic violence and many other things which work together to produce these outcomes. (Tamene) We also have to think about toxic waste dumping sites. Black parts of Oakland have 400% more toxic chemical release sites than white parts of Oakland. These pollute the air, the ground, and the water. (Alameda County Department of Public Health) Furthermore, black people are not the only group impacted by these issues. There are countless marginalized groups being exposed to the same hazards and seeing similar disparate covid outcomes from Indigenous people to Hispanic people. (Tamene)

The solution to these problems seems two-fold. We should ameliorate these impacts while also eliminating the causes. On the one hand, we need to give access to healthcare, nutritious food, and the other determinants of health which the impacted communities lack. On the other hand, we must eliminate the hazards being imposed on them by those communities which see better outcomes as a result. If freight traffic is too hazardous for Piedmont; then it’s too hazardous for West Oakland. Bans on environmental hazards should extend to marginalized communities whenever they are imposed by privileged communities. Choosing to shift your own risks onto others makes you culpable for that impact. This conclusion is a traditional liberal perspective on this issue. I think this argument has failed.

While the argument holds true in theory, in practice it doesn’t leave any effective means of actually accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. The problem is that you can’t force racist white people to share in the burdens they have already succeeded in shifting onto your neighborhood, and you can’t force them to take responsibility for the outcomes. A progressive solution must be more aggressive. The cost of doing the wrong thing must be high. The actuarial perspective is a powerful force. It seems to me that this is a major theme in the activism we’ve seen across the country this year. Police violence is one form of systemic violence against black communities, but air pollution is another form of systemic violence perpetrated on black communities with a more hidden but more significant impact. This realization seems to be coming into the zeitgeist in a new way this year.

The fact that black neighborhoods are treated as dumping grounds for toxic waste and other forms of systemic violence cries out for a vigorous and urgent reaction. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the Black Panthers started in one of the most polluted sacrifice zones in Oakland. Many of the groups which were targeted for dismantling and assassinations by the FBI COINTENPRO program such as the Black Panthers have since transformed into nonhierarchical non-dismantlable organizations united only by a loose set of principles and the desire to demand change through direct action. I think we will continue to see this trend grow and resist systemic violence in our community as a result of the increased risk of covid.

On the one hand, as we saw from Jennifer Tsai in the Scientific American article, covid exposes racism in the system. I propose that it also throws gasoline on the fire, accelerating the process by which the people recognize and articulate the threat they are under and stand up to demand change. We are seeing a huge increase in deaths and harms, but we are also seeing a huge increase in activism, community organizing, and community engagement under the new non-hierarchical, mutualist model. The nascent model of contemporary activism is itself an argument about how our communities should change to reflect a new sense of anti-kyriarchal interdependence and an end to toxic colonialism as a tool of systemic violence.



Works Cited

Alameda County Public Health Department. “East and West Oakland Health Data Existing Cumulative Health Impacts.” Published 03-09-2015.

Crowley, K. (2020, April 17). African-American COVID-19 deaths ‘disproportionately’ high in California. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

EPA. Particulate Matter (PM) Basics. (2020, October 01). Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Ford, T., Reber, S., & Reeves, R. (2020, June 17). Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Pimentel, B. (2012, August 06). Ban on Trucks Made Permanent on I-580. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Tsai, J. (2020, September 08). COVID-19’s Disparate Impacts Are Not a Story about Race. Scientific American. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Tamene, M. (2020, September 15). Why Black, Indigenous and Other People of Color Experience Greater Harm During the Pandemic. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Woodruff, J. (2020, April 02). COVID-19 may not discriminate based on race — but U.S. health care does. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Wu, X., Nethery, R. C., Sabath, M. B., Braun, D. and Dominici, F., 2020. “Air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: Strengths and limitations of an ecological regression analysis.” Science advances6, p.eabd4049.