“Nowhere in Snow’s writings on disease does one ever encounter the idea of a moral component to illness,” writes Johnson. “Equally absent is the premise that the poor are somehow more vulnerable to disease thanks to some defect in their inner constitution. ... The poor were dying in disproportionate numbers not because they suffered from moral failings. They were dying because they were being poisoned.”Today, as Covid-19 continues its deadly march across the world, the US is emerging from a politically divisive election that gave few indications that the country can find the common ground needed to bridge its social differences in service of a common good. We’re a country at a crossroads, facing a reckoning on the heels of a nationwide movement for racial justice that has left much unresolved. Our immediate focus is rightfully on finding ways to effectively slow the spread of Covid-19, which has been disproportionately suffered by communities of color and the poor. Preventing such devastation in the future will require that we address long-standing economic and environmental inequalities facing these same communities. The larger question is whether we can, at last, bridge a geographic divide created by the legacy of segregation, which has resulted in our separate and unequal America.
Recent research by Jessica Trounstine, a professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, has found that the effects of segregation and local public policy decisions across the country have produced unequal access to basic city services and public works—a form of inequality that’s become embedded in the fabric of American cities. This inequality—where the haves and the have-nots are divided by street, by neighborhood, and by city, and where the poor and communities of color receive fewer and lower-quality public services—has in turn contributed to the racial political polarization of our country, according to Trounstine.