In the 1970s, William Woods, a Black man and lifelong Dallas resident, worked at an ice cream parlor near Highland Park. Some customers were kind, but many others had no qualms expressing how they felt about being served by a Black man. Some insisted that another employee serve them. Others tossed him money while muttering racial slurs. Decades later, Woods, now 61, can recall these incidents vividly. The pain has been burned into his brain, a reminder that, in the eyes of some, he is lesser.
To Woods, though, the ultimate reminder of this racism is the government’s reaction to the COVID-19 crisis.
“White people think of Black people as animals,” he says. “That’s why the virus is killing Black and brown people the way it is. We got a foot on our neck, and no one is coming to help.”
The coronavirus has killed people of color at an alarming rate. While Black people make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, they have died at twice the rate as white and Asian Americans. In Dallas, 74 percent of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 are either Black or Hispanic. These numbers are not merely matters of medicine.
Scientists, organizers and Dallas residents say the virus is highlighting the city’s racial fault and exposing a convergence of racial, economic and social inequities.
“You have I-30 separating north and south Dallas, and three of the hardest-hit areas are in the south,” says Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health.
“It’s not just about resources; it’s the social and clinical infrastructure of our city. It’s all connected. This is nothing new, but COVID-19 has brought it to light.”
Well before the pandemic arrived, Sandy Rollins was trying to help Black and Hispanic families avoid eviction. As the executive director of Texas Tenants’ Union, Rollins has been closely monitoring the state and local governments’ reactions to the pandemic. For the most part, she’s been frustrated.
“We’ve had the courts open and close several times,” she says. “It’s been patchwork.”
When she spoke with the Observer in late August, Rollins had just gotten off the phone with a woman who, struggling with unemployment, lost her car to the bank.
“It’s going to take a while to recover from that,” Rollins says.
Rollins gets calls like that every day. Her job is a constant reminder of the challenges people of color face trying to eke out a living.
“Structural racism pervades almost everything,” she says. “People of color don’t get paid as much as whites. Women don’t get paid as much as men. So you’re dealing with a population that has lower wages and less of a safety net because they’re underpaid. If you’re already in a low-wage job, and all of a sudden you’re unemployed, you don’t have the cushion to draw on to not be immediately thrown into crisis.”
Those inequities pervade Jetelina’s job, too. As a social epidemiologist, she traces how “social determinants” such as food insecurity, racism and violence affect a community’s health. Like Rollins, Jetelina is disappointed by how local, state and federal leaders have responded to the pandemic. But she’s not surprised.
“We’ve known about these disparities for a long time,” she says. “COVID-19 has just shed light on how systemic these issues are.”
Jetelina provided many reasons why the coronavirus has hit Black and Hispanic communities in such large numbers. Social factors like mobility play a significant role, she says, especially in southern Dallas communities that are seeing the highest numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
“These are communities that are lower-income, highly Hispanic, highly Black, and in many cases, unable to practice social distancing,” the epidemiologist says. “They are essential workers, many living in multigenerational households, taking the DART to and from work, and sometimes they have to make decisions like paying for dinner or paying for a COVID test.”
Jetelina is particularly frustrated at how little attention is being paid to Texas’ Hispanic population.
“The Texas border, for example, is an incredible hotspot for COVID deaths and cases,” she says. “No one is really paying much attention to how this virus is affecting Hispanic communities.”
Jetelina mentions several ZIP codes in the Cockrell Hill and Oak Cliff areas, which are the same communities targeted by the Dallas group Somos Tejas. The organization strives to create “a culture of civic engagement” within the Hispanic community, with a particular focus on voting. Somos Tejas is composed of Hispanic men and women who, for nearly six months, have watched the pandemic hurt their friends, families and communities in Dallas. For now, they’re still focused on the long game: representation.
Arnulfo Garza, one of the organization’s leaders, was angered by the Trump administration’s plan to end the census count a month early, in September instead of October.
“The census shortening was a blow, and it feels very targeted,” Garza says. The group’s voter registration efforts are focused on the communities with the highest COVID-19 rates and the lowest rates of voter turnout.
“We try to challenge the narrative about who our people are,” Garza says. “You hear, ‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re stealing our jobs,’ but that’s just not true. We’re creating jobs. When you go downtown, our people are the ones who are building buildings. They’re the ones doing the work. Our community is the biggest wealth creator. Texas isn’t Texas without the Latino community. So a lot of the work we do is relationship building to get people to vote and be engaged in the schools. When people understand things better, they feel a sense of belonging.”
Herlinda Resendiz has been spearheading the organization’s efforts to get people counted in the census, an effort that might mean more representation and more public dollars to Black, Hispanic and Native American communities.
“We know, because we experienced it ourselves, that there are not enough resources being brought to Black and brown communities,” Resendiz says. “So we want to bring those resources to our people.”
Basic resources can offer a “first line of defense,” Jetelina says.
“Communities need the low-hanging fruit, things like access to medical care, an increase in testing and an increase in awareness,” she says. “The more complicated solution is improving health insurance among those unemployed or uninsured.”
The epidemiologist is encouraged by Parkland’s Hospital’s efforts to station a mobile testing site near a DART stop. But as the pandemic has ravaged communities in southern Dallas, Jetelina has realized that Texas’ healthcare system is even more dysfunctional than she thought. Texas has a decentralized public health system, which means every county responds on its own, rather than on a statewide level.
“I think that’s really hurt us in the long run,” Jetelina says. “The virus doesn’t care about freeways or borders. Other countries have shown that if we put a strong front forward as a collective, we could have stopped it. But here, our response has been directly reflective of the resources each county has. We as the United States have built a health system that exacerbates disparities. People need to understand these disparities, and know that it’s not because people are ignoring their health on purpose.”
William Woods has struggled with heart and kidney ailments for years, and when the pandemic arrived, he decided to quit driving for Uber and Lyft.
“If I get that virus, I’m gone,” he said over the phone in late August. “So I stay in my apartment as much as possible.”
Earlier in the summer, it looked like Woods would no longer have that option. In late July, as Dallas County’s eviction moratorium was nearing its end, Woods’ landlord filed an eviction notice against him. With help from a lawyer, Woods was able to avoid eviction and a hefty fee. But because he worries about contracting the virus, he’s holed up at home and relying on food stamps. He spends every day devouring the news and battling anxiety.
“I’m a little depressed. I’m not gonna lie to you,” he says.
When reached over the phone in late August, Woods, who speaks in a rapid, breathless manner, railed against congressmen and the Kentucky police officers who killed Black woman Breonna Taylor in her home. But the majority of his ire was reserved for Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who Woods believes is refusing to help Americans by refusing to bring the HEROES Act to a vote in the Senate. The bill, which the House of Representatives passed May 15, would give Americans an extra $3 trillion in COVID-19 relief. McConnell called it a “3 trillion dollar left-wing wish list.”
“I can’t figure that out,” Woods says, incredulous. “The government can give the rich people a tax break, but Mitch McConnell puts a pause on [the HEROES Act]. That $1,200 they gave us lasted less than a month. Now, people are really suffering, and it’s mostly minorities.”
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While Woods speaks about McConnell, his television blares coverage of the March on Washington. Tens of thousands of people were gathered from across the county for the 57th anniversary of the original march, an event organizers had dubbed the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” Commitment March. Woods watched as protesters chanted through cloth masks, many of them hoisting signs honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, three Black people whose deaths have driven the recent round of Black Lives Matter protests. Woods wasn’t happy.
“They marched on Washington in 1963, and it’s 2020!” he yells. “That’s why this virus is killing Black and brown people: They don’t care.”
Days later, both Woods and Rollins get some much-needed relief. A new national moratorium on evictions, announced Sept. 1, will help keep people in Dallas and across the country in their homes through the rest of 2020, though not eliminate any unpaid back rent. Woods is still anxious, but for the first time in months, he is feeling something close to hope. He’s just finished a monthlong battle to get his eviction case tossed from court, and now he knows he has a home for the rest of the year. Ultimately, he’s surprised.
“I’m extremely, extremely excited about staying in my apartment,” he says. “I’m excited about not being homeless.”