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A New York Garbage Map Reveals the Virus of White Supremacy

Even in a pandemic, we are stuck in the same nightmarish feedback loop of racist policy. The results are predictable and deadly.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Earlier this week, The City, a nonprofit news organization covering New York, published a map detailing the drastic decline in trash collection in certain areas in Manhattan—specifically neighborhoods with higher concentrations of wealth, including the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and East Village. Whereas working class neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island saw increases in their weekly hauls upwards of ten percent—the likely byproduct of more people sheltering in place—the tony Manhattan zip codes actually dipped in their trash output. A porter in one such neighborhood guessed that half of the residents in the building where he worked had left the city for second homes. “I do see a lot less garbage than what I normally would see when they’re there,” he explained. 

It’s a small detail among many unfolding around the country right now, all telling a version of the same story: The demarcations that have decided who can and cannot protect themselves against the global pandemic of Covid-19.

In Queens Community District 7, which saw a surge of 9.9 percent in waste, 53 percent of residents are Asian, with Latinx residents making up another 20 percent. Brooklyn Community District 8, with an increase of 8.6 percent, is 58 percent Black and 12 percent Latinx. The pickup on the Upper East Side in Manhattan Community District 3, which is 75 percent white? Dropped 3.6 percent. The experience of the pandemic in the city—who’s still riding the subway, who’s working the checkout at the grocery, who’s living and who’s dying—is highly raced and classed. 

It’s of course bigger than New York. An analysis from The Guardian found that Wayne county, which is home to Detroit, has seen more than 700 Covid-19 deaths—a death rate that is 250 percent higher than the statewide average. As Anne Branigin wrote last month at The Root in a piece about the racist housing, environmental, and health disparities that make Black people particularly vulnerable to the worst impacts of the coronavirus, “In America, the policies and circumstances that governed our families and neighborhoods can be mapped in our bodies.”

The pandemic has not brought anything new to light aside from the disease itself; rather it has made plain the fact that systemic, structural racism is deeply embedded in every major American institution. The lack of access to necessary household resources, health care, and childcare within marginalized communities—let alone access to summer homes in the Hamptons—has defined the United States’ response to this crisis. 

In New York, Black and Latinx residents are dying at twice the rate of their white neighbors. In Oregon, among those with positive test results, 29 percent are Latinx whereas they make up just 13.3 percent of population. ProPublica reported earlier this month that within a single week in March, “Milwaukee went from having one case to nearly 40. Most of the sick people were middle-aged, African American men.” Come the first week of April, that number had spiked to “945 cases countywide, with the bulk in the city of Milwaukee, where the population is 39 percent black.” Young and old have gotten sick, and “about half are African American.” Last Tuesday, Indian Country Today reported that Zia Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo—both located a short drive outside of Sante Fe, New Mexico—had two of the highest infection rates in the entire country at 3.4 and 2.4 percent, respectively.  

This is just what we know. As author Ibram X. Kendi pointed out in The Atlantic on Tuesday, the reporting underway by the state and federal governments has left a massive hole when it comes to tracking these cases and deaths by race. Tracking 194,000 reported positive cases made by 29 states as of Sunday, 38 percent lacked any racial data. The Idaho Statesman reported on Monday that community leaders in Latinx neighborhoods across the state are concerned their residents aren’t getting adequate information, leading to mass confusion as to who is an essential worker, what kind of travel is allowed, and the breadth and risk of the pandemic. “My biggest concern at the beginning was that we have so many isolated communities that have high concentrations of Hispanic families, so isolated that we can’t even guarantee that they have radio,” Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, told the paper. “That was my biggest fear.”

Messages of “We’re all in this together,” have become ubiquitous in recent weeks, from the cast of High School MusicalUSA TodayThe Guardian, the World Health Organization. But we aren’t. We are stuck in the same nightmarish feedback loop of racist policy. And the results are predictable and deadly. 

The changes needed to address these disparities—the disparities built into the system to begin with—are radical. Milquetoast offerings like lowering the Medicare minimum age requirement to 60 and various forms of means testing for emergency financial relief are a joke in the face of the crisis. People have died, and will continue to die, over this malice and lack of political imagination. 

And while that happens, wealthy white communities will retreat further into rarified safety and isolation. The disparity will continue to reveal itself in all kinds of ways. Even in our garbage. “It just feels dead, it feels like there’s nobody there, even though there’s a few people that I know are there,” Joseph Alvarez, the porter in Manhattan, told The City. Things are louder when he goes home to his neighborhood in Queens, he added: “Everybody’s home in my building.”