By Paul M. Ong (click here for the pdf)
Social-science research should assume an essential and central role in guiding the nation through COVID-19 driven transitions. The pandemic has upended lives and livelihoods, with profound racial consequences. Creating insights into the patterns, nature and magnitude of the social and economic upheavals provides an evidence-based foundation to formulate just policies for the post-COVID world. Most scholars were unprepared for the crisis, but the transformative disruptions have opened the door for progressive responses to systemic racism. Researchers can contribute to a social-change agenda by informing public discourse and debates, and by conducting rigorous and creditable analyses. Social scientists must generate grounded knowledge to counter misinformation.
Recent events have improved the political landscape for research on race, starting with Black Lives Matter reigniting awareness and protest to levels unseen since the 1960s (Bullard 2020). Moreover, president-elect Joe Biden embraces scientific knowledge for sound public policy (Scientific American 2020) and openly recognizes the urgency of “rooting out” systemic racism” (ABC News 2020). This perspective is reinforced by incoming vice-president Kamala Harris, who grew up experiencing the unjust hardships imposed on people of color, and inherited her mother’s social activism, a parent who is also a renowned scientist (Kopan 2020). The national revitalization and re-legitimization of the pursuit of empirical truth have also expanded opportunities for applied research to inform local policies and actions, a geographic scale where grounded implementation is critically important to fair relief and recovery.
The emerging literature confirms what people fear most—the pandemic has magnified racial disparities. The pandemic has put the reproduction of inequality on steroids, sparking unprecedented rapidly increasing gaps. Pre-existing conditions have made marginalized groups significantly more vulnerable, which translates into disproportionate harms. This is visible in the higher infection and death rates for people of color (Morey et al 2020; Atlantic 2020). Uneven economic dislocations are just as profound with skyrocketing unemployment and waves of business closures (Ong 2020). The financial havoc ripples downstream through heightened housing and food insecurity (Ong et al 2020, Wong et al 2020, Larson et al 2020). COVID-19 has tragically deepened the digital divide for students with remote learning (Peoples et al 2020). Sheltering-in-place and politically induced fear have systematically dampened participation in the 2020 Census in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Ong et al 2020). Together, these differentiated outcomes are part and parcel of a web of overlapping and linked processes that are elements of systemic racism (Ong and Gonzalez 2019).
Socioeconomic forecasting is froth with uncertainty and danger, but it is obvious that current developments, if unchecked, will precipitate long-term harm and widen the racial divide. Those behind on rent and mortgages will struggle to catch up on their mounting debts. Children lagging in distant schooling will find it challenging to catch up on missed lessons. The likely massive differential undercount of minorities in the once-in-a-decade enumeration will politically disenfranchise through redistricting and economically marginalize through lost funding and services. Other changes will unfold over a longer time horizon. Many companies and employees will opt to institutionalize remote work, a realignment favoring the better educated professional class. This and other COVID-19 legacies will realign residential preferences away from density, thus restructuring the urbanscape through new forms of gentrification and displacement.
The predicted dire future need not come to pass. Overcoming the pandemic’s current trajectory will require informed interventions. As others engage in reimagining and re-visioning a just post-pandemic world, social-scientists must identify and propose concrete paths forward. Researchers must commit to the mundane but fundamental trench work of discovering feasible points of intervention, advising on priorities for allocation, and assessing programmatic effectiveness. The crisis offers an opportunity to actively engage in the fight to bend history towards justice.
Paul M. Ong (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Research Professor and Director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA, and a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board.
ABC News, November 7, 2020, 6:44 PM. “Read the full text of Joe Biden’s speech after historic election.”
The Atlantic, “The COVID Racial Data Tracker,” https://covidtracking.com/race, accessed November 17, 2020.
Bullard, Robert D. “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter,” in Lessons in Environmental Justice: From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter and Idle No More Sage Publications (2020).
Tal Kopan, Aug 16, 2020, “Kamala Harris was shaped by Berkeley and a ‘do something’ mother.” San Francisco Chronicle.
Tom Larson, Paul M. Ong, Don Mar, and James H. Peoples Jr. “Inequality and COVID-19 Food Insecurity.” UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, October 28, 2020.
Brittany N. Morey, ‘Alisi Tulua, Sora Park Tanjasiri, Andrew M. Subica, Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula, Corina Penaia, Karla Thomas, Richard Calvin Chang, Vananh D. Tran, Ninez A. Ponce, Paul Ong, and Elena Ong. “Structural Racism and Its Effects on Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States: Issues of Health Equity, Census Undercounting, and Voter Disenfranchisement.” AAPI Nexus, forthcoming (2020).
Paul Ong, Don Mar, Tom Larson, and James H. Peoples, Jr. “Inequality and COVID-19 Job Displacement.” September 9, 2020. UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge
Paul Ong, Andre Comandom, Nicholas DiRago, and Lauren Harper. “COVID-19 Impacts on Minority Businesses and Systemic Inequality.” UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, October, 30, 2020.
Paul M. Ong and Jonathan Ong. June 11, 2020. “Persistent Shortfall and Racial/Class Disparities, 2020 Census Self-Response Rate.” UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.
Paul M. Ong “Systemic Racial Inequality and the COVID-19 Renter Crisis.” UCLA Institute on Inequality and Democracy and UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. August 7, 2020.
Paul M. Ong and Silvia R. Gonzalez. Uneven Urbanscape: Spatial Structures and Ethnoracial Inequality. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
James H. Peoples Jr., Paul M. Ong, Don Mar, and Tom Larson. “COVID-19 and the Digital Divide in Virtual Learning.” UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, October 28, 2020.
Scientific American, October 1, 2020. “Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientific-american-endorses-joe-biden1/. Accessed November 16, 2020.
Karna Wong, Paul Ong and González, Silvia R. “Systemic Racial Inequality and the COVID-19 Homeowner Crisis.” UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate. August 27, 2020.