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George Floyd’s killing was just the spark. Here’s what really made the protests explode.

Racial discrimination pervades nearly every aspect of American life. Here’s the data, from health care to housing.

- June 10, 2020

What prompted the worldwide protests against racially biased policing? The simplest answer would be that on May 25, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, as millions of Americans have now witnessed in a video that went viral. That killing came soon after several other prominent wrongful killings of black people, including that of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT worker shot to death by Louisville police as she lay in her own bed, and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man whom local vigilantes accosted and shot as he jogged down a road in Brunswick, Ga.

But fully understanding the protests requires a larger recognition of systemic racism. Operating through a variety of institutions and practices, racial discrimination pervades nearly every aspect of American life, from policing to health care to employment to housing. Examining that pervasiveness provides insight into the current national and international uprisings.

Deaths at the hands of police are most common in low-income communities of color. A recent study suggests that one in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police; this means that black men are 2.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by the police. Black women are 1.4 times more likely, Latino men are 1.3 times more likely, American Indian men are up to 1.7 times more likely, and American Indian women are as much as 2.1 times more likely. When researchers calculate the years of life lost as a result of police violence, over half are lost by people of color.

Police target black people the most

Black people are disproportionately likely to come in contact with the criminal legal system, whether that’s being stopped by police, arrested, detained or incarcerated. These disparities are not accounted for by individual behavior differences. For example, although black people use and sell drugs at approximately the same rates as white people, they are more than twice as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses. This heightened contact with the criminal legal system is associated with increased risk of illness and decreased well-being, a phrase researchers use to refer to a composite measure of physical, mental, social, financial and spiritual health.

Black people cannot escape this reality by moving to better neighborhoods or earning more income. Further, imprisonment hurts not just the individual but also his or her children, with effects that reach intergenerationally and across entire neighborhoods.

Racism and bias are rooted in the institution of policing itself

Measuring bias in policing is difficult and contentious. Nonetheless, considerable evidence indicates that police more often use force against people of color and reveals that law enforcement targets people of color without justification. While many argue that “bad cops” are the problem, research finds widespread bias in law enforcement decisions, among other issues.

Further, policing institutions themselves affect how police interact with communities. For example, police who view their agencies as having fair managerial practices are less likely to follow a “code of silence” or to believe that illegal behavior on the part of the police can be justified. Militarized police units are more likely to be deployed in communities of color; this form of policing is associated with more deaths from police shootings. Whether cops are “good” or “bad,” the larger institutional context matters. Aggressive policing is neither the best nor the only option for responding to troubled communities. Crime goes down when governments invest in other important community resources such as local nonprofit organizations or mental health services, research shows.

Racial disparities extend beyond policing, too

Racial disparities extend beyond policing. Black infants are 2.3 times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday. Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. These disproportionate deaths are a product of racial discrimination. Black patients are prescribed less pain medicine; are less likely to receive appropriate care for chest pain; face medical practitioners who listen to them less, are more likely to view them negatively and whose treatment decisions are biased by false racial stereotypes; have more limited access to health insurance; and encounter higher barriers to health care, according to research.

Racial discrimination also hinders access to the labor market. Studies have established that the same resume is less likely to lead to a job interview if the applicant has a “black” name like Lakeisha or Jamal. Even when job seekers have the same qualifications and are trained by researchers to exhibit comparable interpersonal skills, black applicants are still 50 percent less likely to get a “callback” or job offer. Hiring discrimination does not appear to be getting better with time.

Housing discrimination further erodes economic stability in communities of color. Numerous studies confirm that landlords discriminate against black renters. Research also indicates that racial bias in mortgage lending has an effect equivalent to having a credit score that is 71 points lower. A good job and high income do not protect from housing discrimination. At the height of the housing boom, black and Latino families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely to be given a subprime loan than white families making less than $30,000.

Even a pandemic does not strike equally

Covid-19 outcomes have glaringly displayed the effects of racial discrimination. Recent estimates suggest that if people of color had died of the virus at the same rate as white Americans, 13,000 black Americans, 1,300 Latinos and 300 Asian Americans might still be alive. Some have pointed to people of color having higher rates of diabetes, obesity and other preexisting conditions as an explanation for unequal coronavirus outcomes. However, research has shown that these disparities are themselves products of accumulated racial disadvantage.

As decades of research make clear, racial discrimination is widespread and can be harmful to the point of being lethal. George Floyd is the most recent casualty and most visible example of far-reaching effects of continued racial discrimination in the United States.

Jamila Michener (@povertyscholar) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, and author of “Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).