Excerpted From: John Whitlow, 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, 35 Journal of Civil Rights & Economic Development 245 (Spring, 2022) (274 Footnotes) (Full Document)
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.
Gilmore's articulation of the production of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death is grounded in the concept of racial capitalism, which theorizes the ways in which racism and capital accumulation are imbricated and mutually reinforcing. In this theoretical framework, capitalism is intrinsically racial, as it produces a deeply inegalitarian social order that is naturalized and reproduced through a complex of racialized ideologies and practices. This article flows from that starting point, connecting the racially disparate deadliness of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City in the spring of 2020 to the increased political and economic power of the real estate industry within neoliberal capitalism. The article explores how the business practices and worldview at the core of real estate have intensified racialized inequality and social dislocation, and have correlated to a rapacious political-economic form that geographer Samuel Stein has characterized as the real estate state. The latter is predicated on the nostrums that “land is a commodity and so is everything atop it; property rights are sacred and should never be impinged; a healthy real estate market is the measure of a healthy city; growth is ... god.”
This article will proceed along two complementary thematic paths: first, it will look at how the Trump administration's response to the pandemic was prefigured by its rootedness in the predatory and racialized practices of the real estate industry, and, relatedly, by the latter's distinctively market-facilitative vision of state power. As an example, a New York Times exposé from 2017 sheds light on the day-to-day workings of Jared Kushner's properties in the Baltimore area, where predominantly Black tenants live amid chronically poor conditions and are subjected to a relentless pattern of petty and meritless litigation. In New York City, Kushner has benefited from generous tax incentives and exploited loopholes in the state's rent laws to remove apartments from rent regulation, in the process converting affordable homes into luxury goods. The extraction of value that is at the core of Kushner's business model is based on the multiplication of rents-debts and the intensification of inequalities. The core features of this business model have been transposed to the sphere of state power, as evidenced by the Trump-backed tax reform of 2017, which cut taxes for the wealthy and incentivized capital to flow into investment ventures in areas deemed to be distressed. The mode of governance at the heart of the federal real estate state was tragically ill-equipped to handle the type of public health crisis presented by Covid-19.
The article's second thematic path explores the political-economic trajectory of neoliberal New York City in recent decades, with the aim of contextualizing the extreme race and class inequalities that Covid-19 has zeroed in on and exacerbated to deadly effect. The article analyzes these inequalities through the lens of housing law and policy, focusing on the ways in which public power has been mobilized--at the state and municipal levels--to promote private real estate investment. The combination of weakened rent laws and a market-based approach to economic development has rendered vast swaths of the city unaffordable and has led to crises of extreme rent burden, poor housing conditions, and homelessness that have unfolded along racialized class lines. These crises, already severe before the onset of Covid-19, worsened during the pandemic and contributed to the spread of the virus.
The article is organized as follows: Part I lays out the theoretical frameworks in which the article's main arguments are situated--racial capitalism and law and political economy (LPE). As we have already seen, racial capitalism elucidates the ways in which capital accumulation depends on and produces racial differentiation, subjecting racialized groups of people to disproportionate vulnerability to premature death. Relatedly, LPE explores how the spheres of politics and economics are inseparable and are legally constituted, their deep-seated inequalities rooted in contestations over power. Part II explores the racialized arc of neoliberalism and the coming to prominence of the real estate state, with a focus on the Trump administration's exaggerated brand of anti-statist ideology. The latter is rooted in the business practices of the real estate industry, which shaped the failed federal response to the crisis of Covid-19. Part III analyzes New York City's extreme race, class, and geographical inequalities through the prism of the settlement of the City's fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s and developments in housing law and policy in the decades that followed. The disinvestment and abandonment of the crisis years was succeeded by a series of legal moves that facilitated housing's intensifying commodification, producing a crisis of affordable housing that contributed to the racially disparate deadliness of Covid-19 in the City in the spring of 2020. Part IV takes stock of our current political moment, exploring possibilities for the construction of a radical politics of security and solidarity that seeks to challenge the inequalities generated by racial capitalism.
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According to K. Sabeel Rahman, “[t]he conflagration of economic crisis and ailing communities may have been sparked by the novel coronavirus, but the kindling for this fire has been laid by ... the policy choices of the past [forty] years.” In keeping with Rahman's emphasis on the underlying structural and systemic causes of the current crisis, this article explores the racially disparate deadliness of the pandemic, with a particular geographic and temporal focus on New York City in the spring of 2020, through the lenses of racial capitalism and law and political economy. The article's starting point-- that the inequalities produced by capitalism are both racialized and legally constituted--flows into an exploration of recent modalities of capital accumulation and their corresponding orientations to state power. The shorthand for the hyper-extractive, anti-statist political-economic configuration that emerged from the neoliberal turn of the 1970s is the real estate state, forged during New York City's fiscal crisis and embodied, at the federal level, by the Trump administration. Under the governance of the real estate state, racialized economic predation, undergirded by market-facilitative legal-policy frameworks and a bare, anti-statist vision of society, has been the coin of the realm.
As we have seen, this mode of governance was catastrophically ill-suited to deal with the type of public health emergency posed by Covid-19. At the federal level, the Trump administration--helmed by individuals whose worldviews were shaped by the business practices of real estate development and finance--first underplayed the severity of the crisis for fear that it would negatively impact stock prices, then left the response largely up to the states and the private market. The consequences of the administration's approach to Covid-19 were grave--over 663,783 people have been killed in the U.S. by the virus as of the writing of this article. At the municipal level, New York City's real estate state, which is characterized by market-oriented economic development policies that promote the gentrification of urban space, has produced a staggeringly unequal city. In post-fiscal crisis New York, inequality has been organized along racial lines and configured geographically, as working-class, Black and brown sections of the City were subjected to austerity and disinvestment during and after the crisis, with many of these neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment and gentrification in recent years. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that in the spring of 2020, Covid-19 disproportionately impacted places like Corona and the Bronx, the homes of Working-class, Black, Latinx, and immigrant New Yorkers who could not afford to take time off from work and often live amid housing insecurity and poor conditions.
This article began by relating Covid-19's racially disparate unfolding in New York City to Ruth Wilson Gilmore's observation that racism “is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Here, racism is rooted--materially and ideologically--in the exercise of public and private power within the political economy of capitalism. The counter to this racially hierarchized limiting of people's life chances is the creation of a society built on principles of radical solidarity and collective security. These principles, which cut against the grain of neoliberalism's decades-long assault on social life, animate contemporary movements against state violence and for social, economic, and racial justice. As these movements work toward futures in which the economy is democratized and the state is reconfigured according to social priorities, they actively imagine a world in which racial hierarchies-- including uneven exposure to vulnerability, precarity, and death--are flattened. The construction of a world beyond racial capitalism is premised on the affirmation, articulated by Gilmore, “that where life is precious, life is precious.”
Associate Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law.