US racial inequality may be as deadly as COVID-19

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72 Scopus citations


The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a catastrophic increase in US mortality. How does the scale of this pandemic compare to another US catastrophe: racial inequality? Using demographic models, I estimate how many excess White deaths would raise US White mortality to the best-ever (lowest) US Black level under alternative, plausible assumptions about the age patterning of excess mortality in 2020. I find that 400,000 excess White deaths would be needed to equal the best mortality ever recorded among Blacks. For White mortality in 2020 to reach levels that Blacks experience outside of pandemics, current COVID-19 mortality levels would need to increase by a factor of nearly 6. Moreover, White life expectancy in 2020 will remain higher than Black life expectancy has ever been unless nearly 700,000 excess White deaths occur. Even amid COVID-19, US White mortality is likely to be less than what US Blacks have experienced every year. I argue that, if Black disadvantage operates every year on the scale of Whites’ experience of COVID-19, then so too should the tools we deploy to fight it. Our imagination should not be limited by how accustomed the United States is to profound racial inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21854-21856
Number of pages3
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 8 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. I gratefully acknowledge feedback provided by Robert Chung, Felix Elwert, Kathryn Grace, Michelle Niemann, Jenna Nobles, Matthew Plummer, Jane Sumner, and Julia Wrigley. This research was supported by the Minnesota Population Center, which is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Award P2C HD041023), and the Fesler-Lampert Chair in Aging Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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