Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET Wednesday
The death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer has sparked days of civil unrest in the United States. Those sparks have landed in a tinderbox assembled over decades of economic inequality, now made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
Minneapolis police officers initially confronted the man — George Floyd — on suspicion that he'd used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. The viral video of what followed captured an individual tragedy. But it's set against a backdrop of poverty and discrimination that have long colored relations between law enforcement and the African American community.
African Americans are worse off than whites by almost every economic measure. And that divide has only deepened during the pandemic that's sent the country into its worst economic downturn in generations.
A survey by the Federal Reserve last year found that even in good times, African Americans are less able to pay their monthly bills than whites or Latinos. That's hardly surprising, since median income among African Americans is 41% lower than that of non-Hispanic whites.
Blacks are also 40% less likely to own their homes than whites — depriving many African American families of an opportunity to build wealth. The gap in homeownership is particularly stark in Minneapolis. A study by Zillow, the online real estate company, found black homeownership in the city lags more than 50 percentage points below the white rate.
"It tells us that there's racism baked in to the housing market," said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America's Black Cities.
Income disparity, segregation, and racial redlining have all contributed to low national levels of homeownership among African Americans. Although blacks made housing gains in the 1990s and early 2000s, that was reversed by the subprime mortgage crisis, which led to a wave of foreclosures.
Before the pandemic struck, African Americans were enjoying a strong job market. The black unemployment rate in February was 5.8% — near a 50-year low, though still higher than the white rate. Since then, unemployment for all racial groups has soared to double-digits. But the black-white gap has not noticeably worsened.
African Americans who are working, however, are more likely to hold jobs that put them at risk of infection. A survey by the Labor Department found that in 2018, less than 20% of African Americans held jobs they could do from home, compared to about 30% of whites.
Higher risk of on-the-job exposure to the coronavirus is compounded by African Americans' higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions that are thought to contribute to more severe cases of COVID-19.
"There have been epidemics in the black community that have existed for generations before COVID," Perry said. "COVID accentuated and exposed those epidemics."
Just as the pandemic puts unequal health outcomes under a microscope, the video of George Floyd's last moments illuminates the frustration brought about by generations of economic hardship.
Four police officers have been fired over the incident. One — Derek Chauvin — has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin is shown pressing his knee against Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.
"That action really symbolized the knee on the neck of black homeowners and renters," Perry said. "It represents the employers who don't provide the kind of benefits and wages that will lift African American communities."
He suggested the demonstrations taking place across the country, five months before a national election, provide an opportunity for candidates to spell out how they would deal with these challenges.
"If we don't address the structural inequality," Perry said, "we'll be right back in the same place when the next inevitable crisis hits."
A previous version of this Web story incorrectly said all four police officers present at the death of George Floyd are white.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The viral video that sparked nationwide protests this weekend captured an individual tragedy - the death of a black man at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. But George Floyd's death is set against a backdrop of economic inequality that has long shadowed race relations in this country. We're going to talk about that now for a few minutes with NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So we've been hearing an enormous amount of frustration in the last week about yet another black man dying in police custody. Can you just break down for us how economics plays into that frustration?
HORSLEY: There is certainly frustration with the deadly tactics of police. But there's also frustration about the underlying circumstances that in the richest country on Earth, a man could lose his life because he's suspected of passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. We know that African Americans are worse off than whites in this country by almost every economic measure. Andre Perry, who studies race and inequality at the Brookings Institution, says that means blacks in general are more vulnerable to any kind of economic downturn.
ANDRE PERRY: Black folk live in communities where a single economic shock can really send the entire economic hopes astray.
HORSLEY: And, of course, right now, we're all living through a giant economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
HORSLEY: People throughout the country are on edge. And that has just added more dry kindling to the woodpile where this match has landed.
CHANG: Well, about the pandemic - I mean, we know that African Americans have suffered disproportionate health problems during this entire outbreak. But economically, how are they faring, relatively speaking, during this time?
HORSLEY: Not well. Of course, workers of all races have seen a spike in unemployment during the pandemic. The black unemployment rate has jumped into double digits, as have other rates. But the black-white gap hasn't gotten noticeably worse during the last couple of months.
HORSLEY: We do know, however, African Americans who are working are more likely to be in essential frontline jobs. And that puts them at greater risk of infection.
CHANG: So how does Minneapolis, where this all started, stack up when it comes to inequality or when it comes to discrimination?
HORSLEY: The racial divide in Minneapolis is pretty stark both in terms of income and homeownership. In fact, the gap between white and black homeownership in Minneapolis is one of the largest in the country. And that matters because for a lot of families, owning a home is the main building block of wealth and stability. If blacks aren't able to buy homes, they're missing out on an important stepping stone. Nationwide, African Americans did make some gains in homeownership in the '90s and early 2000s. But those were really wiped out by the subprime mortgage crisis. And Andre Perry says that kind of structural inequality feeds into the frustration of the people who are protesting George Floyd's death.
PERRY: That action really symbolized the knee on the neck of black homeowners and renters. It represents the employers who don't provide the kind of benefits and wages that will lift African American communities.
HORSLEY: Now, Perry notes these demonstrations are taking place five months before a national election. And he says this is a good opportunity for policymakers to talk about how they see policing and how they would address these longstanding economic challenges.
CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Horsley.
Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.