May 6, 2020

A coalition of local elected officials from New York and across the country, led by New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, today called for the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to investigate government responses to the COVID-19 crisis and determine whether actions of executive government leaders led to the perpetuating and exacerbating of racial disparities in the impact of the pandemic.

Nearly three dozen public officials in cities across the country, including New York City and localities across New York State, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Durham, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia sent a letter to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband on Tuesday highlighting the growing body of evidence of disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people and communities of more color. They questioned whether executive actions on all levels of government were contributing factors in these disparities, and asked that the Department of Justice conduct a full investigation into any potential civil rights violations. This request was reiterated in a virtual press conference on Wednesday.

"The racial disparity in COVID-19 impact is not confined to one city or state - it is a nationwide issue, just as the systemic inequities at its root are ingrained across the nation," said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. "We need to be able to hold leaders accountable at all levels, from our federal government down, including state and municipal governments who have contributed to this disparity, through their response or failure to respond to this crisis."

Across the country, communities of more color are seeing a disproportionate and deadly impact of the coronavirus outbreak, which has been confirmed by data that has so far been reported. While advocates and public officials across the country seek the release of further data, in New York City, Black and Latino New Yorkers account for 51% of the population but 62% of deaths. In Michigan, African Americans make up 14% of the population and 40% of the fatalities. And in Chicago, African Americans make up 52% of cases, but 72% of deaths. Local leaders have pushed for additional racial data to uncover deeper disparities and systemic inequities.
In their letter, the local leaders argue that "The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on protected classes is a civil rights issue. The disparities are merely the most recent nationwide manifestation of policies and practices that fail to protect communities of color and perpetuate racial inequities. While viruses do not discriminate, people do."

Specifically, the leaders request that the Department of Justice probe the following areas for plausible civil rights and other legal violations:

  • Unequal access to information and resources
  • Imbalanced distribution of resources to households
  • Unequal distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to hospitals and other care facilities
  • Unequal distribution in the roll out and expansion of COVID-19 sample collection and testing centers in racial and ethnic minority and immigrant neighborhoods.
  • Hospitals, laboratories, and health care facilities struggled to acquire testing machines, supplies, reagents, and associated components
  • Lack of universal testing for pregnant women
  • Whether race and ethnicity were factors in classifying workers as essential or nonessential
  • Whether workers deemed essential were put at risk
  • Inadequate protection of all frontline workers
  • Whether health professionals in medical facilities were given the autonomy to test patients and collect samples as they saw fit
  • Rhetoric from hospital executives differed from frontline medical professionals
  • Whether minority patients presenting at hospitals or other medical environments were more readily turned away or were refused a COVID-19 test
  • Targeting young people of color for enforcement actions
  • Equal access to education for students learning remotely
  • Delayed release of incarcerated and detained persons
  • Lack of PPE in correctional facilities
  • Methods and speed of informing school staffs about the pandemic
  • Uncovering potential inequities among the nation's nursing homes
  • Morgues and funeral homes being overrun and overwhelmed
  • Disproportionate access to unemployment insurance and stimulus relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act
  • Dispersal of the Paycheck Protection Program

The leaders noted in their request, "We believe we cannot simply raise awareness and highlight these issues. We work toward holding systemic actors, decision makers, and officials of all stripes accountable for their actions. Accountability is of primary concern and, via this communication, we urge you to investigate a series of potential civil rights violations and legal infractions that have plagued our communities and that may have cost our constituents their lives." Urgency is needed, the lawmakers argued, in order to determine and remedy violations ahead of a potential second wave of the virus, as the nation continues to struggle with the first.
The full letter to the Department of Justice can be downloaded here, and video of the press conference is available here.

Signatories to the letter include:

Brooklyn Borough President Eric L Adams

New York City Council Member Adrienne Adams

New York City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel

New York City Council Member Inez Barron

Philadelphia Council Member At-Large Kendra Brooks

Baltimore City Council Member Kristerfer Burnett

New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera

New York City Council Member Robert E. Cornegy, Jr.

Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham

Philadelphia City Council Member Jamie Gauthier

Westchester County Legislator Christopher A. Johnson

Durham Council Member At-Large,

Mayor Pro-Tempore Jillian Johnson

New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca

New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie

New York State Assembly Member Diana Richardson

New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso

Chicago Alderman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez

Detroit Council Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams

Peekskill Council Member Vanessa Agudelo

New York State Assembly Member Charles Barron

Syracuse President Pro Tempore,

Councilor at-Large Khalid Bey

Austin City Council Member Gregorio Casar

Detroit City Council Member Raquel Castaneda

New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo

Hudson Alderman Tiffany Garriga

Chicago Alderman Maria E. Hadden

Westchester County Legislator Christopher A. Johnson

New York City Council Member Peter Koo

New York City Council Member Farah N. Louis

New York City Council Member I. Daneek Miller

Milwaukee Board of Supervisors Chair Marcelia Nicholson

New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera

New York City Council Member Debi Rose

New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez

New York State Assembly Member Latrice M. Walker


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