Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, numbers have been flying at us about the spread of the disease—and then the next minute those same numbers are refuted. Part of the problem? The federal government hasn't produced reliable statistics about the coronavirus's spread, whether that's the number of people who have been tested or hospitalized, or how many have died from the virus.
Enter the "pirate CDC," as The Atlantic staff writer Alexis Madrigal calls the Covid Tracking Project, which he helped found. The project is a volunteer organization dedicated to collecting, checking (then double-checking) and publishing the COVID-19-related statistics compiled by the health departments in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. Now, they've started to collect another vital data point: the racial breakdown of who has been affected by the coronavirus.
This week on the podcast, we talked about the importance of tracking the coronavirus's impact on different racial groups, and how to translate that data into actual improvements in health disparities. Below is a small snippet of my conversation with Alexis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You recently added this other layer to your data collection: the COVID-19 racial data tracker. Why did you do that?
We were seeing that some states were beginning to provide racial data. But my colleague at the Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi, and another colleague named Vann Newkirk, wrote these very powerful essays about both what was going on in the South, in Vann's case, and how we need this racial data to understand what's going on in this outbreak, in Ibram's case.
[So Ibram and I] got in touch. He has a group at American University called the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, and we've started to collect this data now.
Listeners to the show will probably find the way that the states are reporting this data somewhere between exasperating, hilarious and horrifying. But, you know, it's the classic stuff. For example, some states are reporting Hispanic as a race alongside Asian, black and white. (Editor's note: On other government forms, such as the 2020 census, Hispanic is not considered a race, but instead an ethnicity.)
One group in particular that I am thinking a lot about are black Hispanic people, such as black Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. We know that there are health disparities. We know that they're affected by segregation. We know that a lot of other things have shown [black Hispanic] groups to have really different outcomes from white Hispanic people. And we really want to be able to track that independently, especially given the concentration of those folks in New York and the concentration of the outbreak in New York. We don't even know if black Dominicans are being filed in as "black" or they're being filed as "Hispanic." It just shows the way that racial categorization is fluid, and oftentimes ridiculous. It also shows that we actually need ways of tracking this that would actually show these disparities instead of hide them.
There are critics of collecting data by race that say, when you do collect this kind of data, you really run the risk of people being thought of as being genetically predisposed to [disease] or blamed because of their race, rather than having a broader conversation about inequities in the system like housing segregation. What do you think of that criticism?
I hear that argument most from people who, in all other things, are like "collect all the data." I'm like, why do we suddenly not want to collect this data on this one thing?
The way I think about it is that we're not really collecting data on race, although that's the form that it takes. We're collecting data on racism. That's why people don't want this data collected. I'm hearing people in directly affected communities say, "We would like this data." And I would like to get that for us.
I've reported on race for years now. One thing I hear all the time from communities of color is this: We'll raise our hands and we'll say there's a problem in our community. We'll go on the record about this problem. If we are lucky, local government or nonprofits will spend some time collecting data to show that, yes, there is a problem in this community. And by this time, it has been years. So there's finally some data that says, "Hey, yes, there is a problem." And then guess what? Nothing changes.
Right. I take my lead from [Oakland environmental activist Margaret Gordon] on this, which is basically that data by itself is more or less inert. You can gather all the data you want about health disparities. But if you don't find the ways to make decision makers hear about that, it doesn't matter. Which oftentimes means first using that data to activate your community, and then the community putting the pressure on the policymakers. You've got to know how the levers of power work in order to operate the machine.
It's always worth remembering that this data, when it goes into the political realm—to try and generate change, legislation, new ordinances or zoning changes—it's going to have a role. But at the end of the day, you still need the city council to pass the ordinance, and you still need the state legislators to do the thing you need. People have a dream, a kind of technocratic ideal, in which the data rules. But in real interest-group politics, and within cities and states in the nation, it never really works like that. But it doesn't mean that having no data on your side is better.
Recently, Ibram X. Kendi wrote a piece in the Atlantic saying that, as the data keeps getting updated, a clearer picture of racial disparities is coming into view—and that picture is putting black people at the center of the coronavirus crisis. What do you think the picture would look like if there was a more uniform approach to collecting race and ethnicity data?
I think we'd be seeing the same health disparities that have plagued America forever. I don't see that there's any reason to expect that we wouldn't see that stuff. It's taking the like slow-burn tragedy of American health and speeding it up.
I really think we can't talk about this as COVID-19 disproportionately affecting "our communities of color" or "our vulnerable populations." I think we need to really name one of the major things we're talking about here, which is: How will the disparate impact hit black communities in the United States? Because we know things about how the healthcare system has long underserved black people in this country. And we really need to like not not let that particular kind of American anti-blackness get diluted. One of the key things we need to keep our eyes on is very specifically what's happening to black people in America.