The Real Estate State and Group-Differentiated Vulnerability to Premature Death: Exploring the Political-Economic Roots of Covid-19’s Racially Disparate Deadliness in New York City in the Spring of 2020
In May 2020, after several bleak months in which Covid-19 took the lives of thousands of New York City’s most vulnerable residents, a vigil was held in Corona Plaza, Queens, to honor the sixty-seven members of Make the Road New York whose time was cut short by the virus. At the event, State Senator Jessica Ramos spoke of the disproportionate toll Covid-19 has taken on working class, immigrant New Yorkers: “[t]hese communities are on the frontlines without adequate protections and have been left to grapple with extreme food insecurity, . . . evictions, and unemployment . . . .” The predominantly Latinx Corona neighborhood that Ramos represents is an area that has been battered by the virus, with 51.6% of its residents testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies in the summer of 2020. While Corona was the neighborhood in New York City hit hardest by Covid-19 in the initial phase of the pandemic, the Bronx was the City’s hardest hit borough. According to a New York Times piece on Covid’s impact on the Bronx, the virus spread building by building in working class, predominantly Black and Latinx sections of the borough, “reflecting a legacy of institutionalized racism, poverty, cramped housing and chronic health problems that have put  residents at higher risk of getting sick and dying.”
Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on places like Corona and the Bronx – and, more broadly, its unfolding along vectors of race, class, and geography – calls to mind Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s observation that racism is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This definition depicts racism as the systematic and hierarchically organized limiting of the life chances of particular groups of (racialized) people through the exercise of both public and private power. This process relates to shifts in the political economy of capitalism over the past four decades, as the state has been refashioned to facilitate ever-shorter horizons of profitability and value extraction, while poor people and the places they call home have been abandoned, and, in some cases, plundered.