Today we’ll learn how racial inequities compound other racial inequities. However, because we are learning this from today’s New York Times (via its email newsletter), we must first slog through a shit ton of obligatory crap to get to the important part of the story, the part about how racial inequities compound other racial inequities. I swear, nobody is better at burying the lede than the Times. Let’s go see if we can find it!
The email starts like this:
February 15, 2022
Good morning. Traffic deaths are surging during the pandemic.
Okay, so this is a bona fide news story, potentially of interest to people who encounter roads in some fashion. Which may not be everyone, but it is a whoooooole lot of people.
Still, the “Good morning” construction just struck me as hilarious. Like:
“Good morning. Dog attacks eating their owners are surging during the pandemic.”
“Good morning. Incidents of space junk falling to Earth and piercing peoples’ skulls are surging during the pandemic.”
“Good morning. Swarms of Africanized bees killing indiscriminately are surging during the pandemic.”
“Good morning. Murders by white nationalists dressed as white non-nationalists are surging during the pandemic.”
“Good morning. Lethal levels of arsenic and other deadly poison discoveries in drinking water are surging during the pandemic.”
And a fine morning to you too, Good Sir! May the indiscriminate rock-&-saw blade-flinging tornadoes that are surging during the pandemic refrain from laying waste to your home and your head! And thank you, sir, for the bump from the low level, amorphous anxiety state at which I begin every day, to this jacked up state of anxiety more narrowly focused on surging deaths-by-vehicle, about which I can do absolutely nothing.
The United States is enduring its most severe increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s.
It is a sharp change from the recent norm, too. Deaths from vehicle crashes have generally been falling since the late 1960s, thanks to vehicle improvements, lower speed limits and declines in drunken driving, among other factors. By 2019, the annual death rate from crashes was near its lowest level since cars became a mass item in the 1920s.
But then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
Crashes — and deaths — began surging in the summer of 2020, surprising traffic experts who had hoped that relatively empty roads would cause accidents to decline. Instead, an increase in aggressive driving more than made up for the decline in driving. And crashes continued to increase when people returned to the roads, later in the pandemic.
Per capita vehicle deaths rose 17.5 percent from the summer of 2019 to last summer, according to a Times analysis of federal data. It is the largest two-year increase since just after World War II.
Whoa! That’s a big jump in vehicle deaths!
This grim trend is another way that two years of isolation and disruption have damaged life, as this story — by my colleague Simon Romero, who’s a national correspondent — explains. People are frustrated and angry, and those feelings are fueling increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, student misbehavior in school and vehicle crashes.
This seems like an easy fix to me. If people are feeling frustrated and angry, and those feelings are making the world a nastier and deadlier place, then why can’t Joe Biden send everyone in the country a bunch of free Xanax or Klonopin or some other good benzos instead of free COVID rapid tests?
Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the emotions partly reflected “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do.” He added: “When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator.”
Well, sure. It doesn’t take a cognitive scientist to figure out that if you’re an angry asshole in the first place, you’re still that same angry asshole when you’re driving a vehicle. Have you tried Xanax for that?
Rising drug abuse during the pandemic seems to play an important role, as well. The U.S. Department of Transportation has reported that “the proportion of drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March 2020, compared to the previous 6 months, while marijuana prevalence increased by about 50 percent.” (Mid-March 2020 is when major Covid mitigations began.)
The opioid increase is serious and alarming. But somehow I just can’t see potheads turning into aggressive, angry, road-raging assholes causing unprecedented spikes in vehicle deaths. Like, ever. Unless there’s some new strain out of Denver that I never heard of (yet) called Killah Zombie Death Driver or something?
Other factors besides the pandemic also affect traffic deaths, of course. But those other factors tend to change slowly — and often counteract each other. Improving technology and safety features reduce traffic deaths, while the growing size of vehicles and the rise of distracted driving lead to more deaths. The only plausible explanation for most of the recent surge is the pandemic.
And possibly the new Killah Zombie Death Driver edibles.
Wait, what’s this? A hint of an important part of this story still to come now that we’re this far in?
Vehicle crashes might seem like an equal-opportunity public health problem, spanning racial and economic groups. Americans use the same highways, after all, and everybody is vulnerable to serious accidents. But they are not equally vulnerable.
OKAY, why is that not the opening paragraph at the beginning of the article? Right after, “Good morning. Traffic deaths are surging during the pandemic.”
Traffic fatalities are much more common in low-income neighborhoods and among Native and Black Americans, government data shows. Fatalities are less common among Asian Americans. (The evidence about Latinos is mixed.) There are multiple reasons, including socioeconomic differences in vehicle quality, road conditions, substance abuse and availability of crosswalks.
And this paragraph would obviously come next, right? Because as bad as these surging traffic death rates are for white people? They are even worse for Black (and Native) Americans. Wouldn’t that be the bigger story? And there are even reasons given for this particular racial disparity (vehicle deaths), and those reasons are – wait for it – other racial inequities.
Why, it’s almost as if all these things compound one another! If that were true, it sure would make this part a really important story, with broad and significant implications for economic justice, environmental justice, public health interventions for substance abuse in Black communities, federal vehicle safety regulations, and so much more.
Well, okay: maybe the racial disparity in vehicle deaths isn’t all that dramatic. Maybe it’s only mentioned here to note a diverging trend that’s showing up in the data and that we ought to keep an on. That would explain why this part of the story is buried here: it’s just not a huge deal (yet).
OH WAIT NO:
These patterns mean that the rise in vehicle crashes over the past two years has widened racial and class disparities in health. In 2020, overall U.S. traffic deaths rose 7.2 percent. Among Black Americans, the increase was 23 percent.
So here we all were, busy learning about this national scourge of rising vehicle death rates during an already shitty pandemic. Alarming statistics! Times analyses! Federal data! Angry assholes! It’s got me concerned people, and I don’t even drive! NO BUENO. Under credit where credit is due, I for one am glad the Times is reporting on this story, so maybe something can be done to stop the trend, and hopefully turn it around quickly.
But now, after aaaall that, we learn the increase in vehicle deaths among Black people is more than three times the national average.
MORE THAN THREE TIMES THE NATIONAL AVERAGE!
Yes I’m screaming! What the fuck? If the national facts and figures are disturbing enough to be worthy of attention from Times writers, editors and readers, wouldn’t numbers THREE TIMES AS HIGH for a substantial subgroup of people be EVEN MORE newsworthy? As in, big headlines, urgent crisis, major story, “we interrupt this program to bring you breaking news” worthy? WHY THE FUCK NOT, hmmm?
One factor: Essential workers, who could not stay home and work remotely, are disproportionately Black, Destiny Thomas, an urban planner, told ABC News.
Oh look, it’s another racial inequity compounding others!
Another factor: Pedestrians are disproportionately Black, Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut noted. “This is not by choice,” Garrick told NBC News. “In many cases, Black folks cannot afford motor vehicles.” As Simon’s story notes, recent increases in pedestrian deaths have been especially sharp.
And yet another!
The increasing inequality of traffic deaths is also part of a larger Covid pattern in the U.S.: Much of the burden from the pandemic’s disruptions has fallen on historically disadvantaged groups. (Deaths from Covid itself have also been somewhat higher among people of color.)
Learning losses have been largest for Black and Latino children, as well as children who attend high-poverty schools. Drug overdoses have soared, and they are heavily concentrated among working-class and poor Americans.
And a couple more. Might as well toss ’em in like afterthoughts; we’re almost at the end of the article.
Many workplaces remain closed. Schools aren’t operating close to normally (as my colleague Erica Green has described). Millions of adults and children must wear masks all day long. These changes have created widespread frustration and anxiety — and the burdens of them do not fall equally across society.
Oh look, it’s another good choice for an opening paragraph for a major story about the soaring vehicle death rates in Black communities compounding all the intersectional inequities those communities are already enduring.
Dr. David Spiegel, who runs Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, has a clarifying way of describing the problem. People are coping with what he calls “social disengagement.” — a lack of contact with other people that in normal times provides pleasure, support and comfort. Instead, Spiegel said, “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”
Whatever that is, it is not clarifying. Hell, “the problem” it’s supposed to be clarifying isn’t even clearly defined here.
But I definitely see a problem, and it’s a white problem: seeing your own community as the default, the norm, the standard-bearers, the people everyone’s talking about whenever race isn’t mentioned. And it’s giving short shrift to others experiencing the exact same issues you are so concerned with, on an enormously larger scale, and with confounding inequities that make it even worse for them than it is for you.
DO BETTER. Not just because you can, but because you fucking should.
Day 1 of Black History Month 2022 (Lori Teresa Yearwood) is here.
Day 2 (Mallence Bart-Williams) is here.
Day 3 (Emmett Till) is here.
Day 4 (A Tale of Two Citizens) is here.
Day 5 (Trayvon Martin) is here.
Day 6 (Franchesca Ramsey) is here.
Day 7 (National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the Black Aids Institute) is here.
Day 8 (extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests) is here.
Day 9 (Summer of Soul/1969 Harlem Cultural Festival) is here.
Day 10 (current and historic racist domestic terrorism, Steve Phillips/Democracy in Color) is here.
Day 11 (Gee’s Bend Quilters) is here.
Day 12 (egregious anti-Black (& anti LGBTQ+) behavior at a NY State high school is here.
Day 13 (Erin Jackson, 1st Black woman to win Olympic gold medal in speedskating) is here.
Day 14 (Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions) is here.