COVID 19 and Work Employment Disparities Magnified

By Elena Delavega, PhD, MSW (Professor, School of Social Work The University of Memphis) & Gregory M. Blumenthal, PhD (Principal, GMBS Consulting Memphis, Tennessee). From the 2021 Hooks Institute Policy Papers “Race in the Time of COVID-19.”


COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that emerged at the end of 2019, resulted in the closures of businesses and workplaces, causing enormous disruptions to work and to the economy (Rothan & Byrareddy, 2020; Sorhabi et al., 2020), particularly to the most vulnerable in society including minorities, who often bear the brunt of poverty and exclusionary policies (Reeves & Rothwell, 2020; Weible et al., 2020; Wright & Merritt, 2020). Racial minorities experienced the worst of the pandemic early on (CDC, 2020). COVID-19 was a great game-changer, but in many ways, it was not. Existing disparities were only magnified.

COVID-19 and Employment/Unemployment

The pandemic did not affect everyone equally. Existing problems brought by social policies that advantage certain groups while excluding others were magnified by the pandemic (Long et al., 2020). Income inequality is associated with worse outcomes from the pandemic, but income inequality was not brought on by the pandemic; it is a preexisting condition (Graham, 2021).

Privileged Workers: Working from Home

Those workers who were able to work from home digitally were able to retain their incomes, health insurance, and housing (Long et al., 2020). People who were able to work from home were also impacted a lot less by school closures and lack of childcare, as they were able to stay home and watch their children (Gould & Shierholz, 2020).

Essential Workers

People in the service and hospitality industries were affected in the worst ways (Long et al., 2020). People in the service industry, particularly those in the lowest strata and with low to no power, did not have the opportunity to protect themselves by working from home, by practicing social distancing, or by having the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) (Glover et al., 2020; Miller et al., 2020; Van Drie & Reeves, 2020). These workers were not only not able to avoid work and social distance, but they were additionally burdened by school and childcare center closures (Gould & Shierholz, 2020). African Americans are disproportionately affected by these burdens (Yancy, 2020).

Essential workers such as grocery and warehouse workers and truck drivers were called “essential” because they provided services that allowed people who were able to work from home and isolate to continue to receive what they needed to support life (US. DHS, 2020). However, essential workers were not essential in the sense that they should survive or receive adequate compensation or protections – essential workers are, in fact, expendable workers. These workers have no choice because while the death rate from the virus may be between 2% and 10%, the death rate from starvation is 100%.

Workers Who Lost Their Jobs

Many people lost their jobs, particularly when restaurants closed and people canceled vacations (Long et al., 2020). People in precarious situations suffered the worst job losses, but others were furloughed, which meant they received no salary during the period (Graham, 2021). For a worker who depends on his or her salary for survival, the income loss was devastating. People who lost their jobs or were furloughed lost their healthcare also. (Graham, 2021).

Nationally, job losses between May 2019 and May 2020 were most acute on an absolute basis among restaurant, janitorial, and secretarial workers and on a percentage basis among tourism, entertainment, and hairstyling workers. There were actually strong increases in employment among computer programmers (absolute increase) and telemarketers (percentage increase). (BLS, 2020a, 2021a) Note that the increases were among occupations with high work-from-home potential, while the decreases were among occupations with required physical attendance.

Memphis Poverty and Job Distribution

Minorities in Memphis tend to have the highest poverty rates and to be concentrated in service jobs that were most likely to either disappear due to the drop in demand or to require the worker to continue to expose himself/ herself to the virus with no protection. In Shelby County, roughly 21% of Blacks and 26% of Hispanics work in service jobs, while only 13% of Whites do. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c). Roughly 23% of Whites and 23% of Blacks work in office jobs, while only 113% of Hispanics do. Roughly 5% of Whites and 6% of Blacks work in agricultural jobs, while 30% of Hispanics do. Roughly 50% of Whites work in managerial or professional jobs, while only 25% of Blacks and 15% of Hispanics do.

In the Memphis metropolitan area, job losses between May 2019 and May 2020 were most acute on an absolute basis among restaurant, janitorial, and secretarial workers and on a percentage basis among agricultural workers. There were strong increases in employment among nonprofit social service workers and legal service workers. (BLS, 2020b, 2021b). As seen nationally, the increases were among occupations with high work-from-home potential, while the decreases were among occupations with required physical attendance. As seen above, jobs which employ Blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately lost, while jobs that employ Whites were disproportionately gained.

The K-Shaped Recovery

People in low-wage jobs were hit hardest, and many of those jobs may not have recovered because workers moved to different jobs or different regions (Begley et at., 2021). In Tennessee, according to Opportunity Insights (2021), at the height of the pandemic crisis on April 17, 2020, the unemployment rate was for low-income workers minus 29.2%, for middle-income workers minus 15.6%, and for high-income workers minus 7.2%, what these had been in January 2020. The huge drops did not last long, however, and by June 30, 2020, things had stabilized somewhat, with the unemployment rate for low-income workers at minus 10.7%, for middle-income workers minus 4.9%, and for high-income workers plus 0.9% January 2020 levels. The situation has not improved much for low-income workers since then. When compared to January 2020, on May 5, 2021, high-income workers had gained 13.1% in employment, middle-income workers had gained 3.0%, but low-income workers were still 10.1% below where they had been before the crisis, or roughly in the same situation as in June 2020.

The same is true in Shelby County, with the difference that both low-income and middle-income workers have had much difficulty recovering. During the worst moment of the pandemic crisis on April 17, 2020, the unemployment

rate was for low-income workers minus 23.2%, for middle-income workers minus 11.8%, and for high-income workers minus 8.8% what these had been in January 2020 (Opportunity Insights, 2021) The huge drops did not last long, however, and by June 30, 2020 things had stabilized somewhat, with the unemployment rate for low- income workers at minus 9.5%, for middle-income workers minus 7.8%, and for high-income workers plus 0.3% January 2020 levels. (Opportunity Insights, 2021). The situation has not improved much for low-income workers since then. When compared to January 2020, on May 5, 2021, high-income workers had gained 11.5% in employment, but middle-income workers were still 6.4%, and low-income workers were still 10.1% below where they had been before the crisis, or roughly in the same situation as in June 2020 (Opportunity Insights, 2021)

Plantation System: Policy Choices and Implications

Tennessee Cutting Federal Benefits

The state of Tennessee has refused extended unemployment benefits for workers affected due to the pandemic (Tennessee Office of the Governor, 2021). State officials explicitly stated that they feel that these unemployment benefits, none of which exceed or even meet the poverty level, are considered to be larger than the income that workers have any right to expect (Sher & Flessner, 2021). To reiterate, the official position of the state of Tennessee is that workers have no right to be paid enough to avoid starvation for themselves and their families. The line between this and slavery is so thin as to be rendered meaningless.

Exploitive System

No one is exempt from economic shocks and labor market failures. COVID-19 threatened all people equally, but the effects of the pandemic were not felt equally by all. Those who had precarious jobs and no protections suffered the worst. (Graham, 2021). In addition to the exploitation suffered by vulnerable workers, the current system abuses small businesses to the benefit of megacorporations. It provides capital and trained, healthy employees to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. Small Black businesses get strangled under this abusive system.


Support for Workers

  • Income – To pay a worker less than it costs to feed, clothe, and house the worker is abusive. Unfortunately, it is just one example of the abusonormativity (the normalization of abusive behavior) of American society. This must change. Workers are humans and merit a living wage.[1]
  • Jobless benefits – When a worker, through no fault of their own, cannot obtain work for which they are qualified, they should be sustained and given the skills necessary to obtain work. Our failure to do so is another example of American abusonormativity.
  • Universal healthcare – The difference between humans and animals is that we do not leave our sick behind to die in the wilderness. Our failure to do so is yet another example of American abusonormativity. Universal healthcare is a necessity to maintain a productive society.
  • Childcare – It is often said that the lives of our babies are of primary societal importance until they are born, at which point they become expendable. This is still another example of American abusonormativity. Parents should either be financially supported in raising their children themselves or with outside assistance. Internet – The means of participating in our government and, increasingly, the education of our children are dependent upon access to the internet. Otherwise, we are applying a new poll tax and destroying public education by making these resources available only to those with excess resources. This is more American abusonormativity.

Support for Small Business

Small businesses are the backbone of America, providing almost half of all private jobs, accounting for almost two-thirds (2/3) of all job growth, and representing over 40% of US GDP (U.S. Census, 2018). These businesses have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic (Bartik et al., 2020). Over half of them had less than two weeks of cash on hand when the pandemic hit, and many experienced significant difficulties in obtaining CARES funding.

The answers to rebuild these businesses are obvious:

  • Capital – If banks and other lenders cannot or will not provide capital under relaxed criteria and low-interest rates, the government must step in as the lender of last resort. If the government is the lender, fair employment practices and living wages should be rigorously enforced.
  • Training – Well-trained employees do not appear out of thin air. Small businesses rarely have the resources to train employees from the ground up. Our education system, in particular our community college system, must have the resources to undertake this training on a large scale and at minimal cost to the trainees and small businesses.
  • Universal healthcare – Small businesses often lack the resources to provide quality health insurance to their employees. This results in expensive turnover and places small businesses at a competitive disadvantage against large private and public employers who can afford to negotiate better rates with insurers.

Watch the authors present on this topic on the Hooks Institute YouTube page:


Bartik, A., Bertrand, M., Cullen, Z., Glaeser, E., Luca, M., & Stanton, C. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on small business outcomes and expectations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(30), 17656–17666.

Begley, J., Brooks, L., McCabe, B.J., Schuetz, J, & Veuger, S. (2021, May 12). What pre-pandemic job trends suggest about the post-pandemic future of the capital region. The Avenue, Brookings Institution. Retrieved from the-post-pandemic-future-of-the-capital-region/

Centers for Disease Control [CDC]. (2020a). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): COVID-19 in racial and ethnic minority groups. Retrieved from 2019-ncov/community/health- equity/race-ethnicity.html

Glover, R. E., van Schalkwyk, M. C., Akl, E. A., Kristjannson, E., K., Lofti, T, Petkovic, J., Petticrew, M. P., Pottie,
K., Tugwell, P., Welch, V. (2020). A framework for identifying and mitigating the equity harms of COVID-19 policy interventions. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 128, 35-48. Retrieved from

Gould, E., & Shierholz, H. (2020, March 15). Not everybody can work from home: Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework. Working Economics Blog. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Graham, C. (2021, April 6). Making well-being a policy priority: Lessons from the 2021 World Happiness Report. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from development/2021/04/06/making-well-being-a-policy-priority-lessons-from-the-2021-world-happiness- report/

Miller, C. C., Kliff, S., & Sanger-Katz, M. (2020, March 1). Avoiding coronavirus may be a luxury some workers can’t afford. The New York Times. Retrieved from upshot/coronavirus- sick-days-service-workers.html

Long, H. (2020, August). The recession is over for the rich, but the working class is far from recovered. Washington Post. Retrieved from rich-working-class-is-far-recovered/

Long, H., Van Dam, A., Flowers, Al., & Shapiro, L. (2020, September 30). The COVID-19 recession in the most unequal in modern U.S. history. Washington Post. Retrieved from business/coronavirus-recession-equality/

Opportunity Insights. (2021). Percent change in employment. Retrieved from Reeves, R. V. & Rothwell, J. (2020). Class and COVID: How the less affluent face double risks. Brookings Institution.

Retrieved from:

Rothan, H. A., & Byrareddy, S. N. (2020). The epidemiology and pathogenesis of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

outbreak. Journal of Autoimmunity, 109. Retrieved from 10.1016/j.jaut.2020.102433 Sher, A. & Flessner, D. (June 8, 2021). Tennessee Gov. Lee defends decision to end federal unemployment aid

for jobless residents. Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Sorhabi, C., Alsafi, Z., O’Neill, N., Khan, M., Kerwan A., Al-Jabir, A., Iosifidis, C., & Agha, R. (2020). World Health

Organization declares global emergency: A review of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

International Journal of Surgery, 76, 71-76. 10.1016/j.ijsu.2020.02.034.
Tennessee Office of the Governor. (May 11, 2021). Gov. Lee pushes return to work, economic

recovery: ends all federal pandemic unemployment funding. Retrieved from

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). May 2019 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates:

United States. Retrieved from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). May 2019 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates:

Memphis, TN-MS-AR. Retrieved from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). May 2020 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates:

United States. Retrieved from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). May 2019 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates:

Memphis, TN-MS-AR. Retrieved from
U.S. Census Bureau. (2020). Sex by occupation for the civilian employed population 16 years and over (Black or

African American alone). 2019: ACS 1-Year Estimates Detailed Tables. Retrieved from https://data.census.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2020). Sex by occupation for the civilian employed population 16 years and over. 2019:

ACS 1-Year Estimates Detailed Tables (White alone, not Hispanic or Latino). Retrieved from https://data.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2020). Sex by occupation for the civilian employed population 16 years and over. 2019:

ACS 1-Year Estimates Detailed Tables. (Hispanic or Latino). Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). The Number of Firms and Establishments, Employment, and Annual Payroll by State,

Industry, and Enterprise Employment Size: 2018. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. (2020, August 18).

Guidance on the essential critical infrastructure workforce: Ensuring community and national resilience in COVID-19 response (Version 4.0). Retrieved from ECIW_4.0_Guidance_on_Essential_Critical_Infrastructure_Workers_Final3_508_0.pdf

Van Drie, H. & Reeves, R. V. (2020). Many essential workers are in “low-prestige” jobs. Time to change our attitudes – and policies? Retrieved from: https://www. /2020/05/28/many- essential-workers-are-in-low-prestige-jobs-time-to-change-our-attitudes-and-policies/

Weible, C. M., Nohrstedt, D., Cairney, P., Carter, D. P., Crow, D. A., Durnova, A. P., Heikkila, T., Ingold, K., McConnell, A., Stone, D. (2020). COVID-19 and the policy sciences: Initial reactions and perspectives. Policy Sciences 53, 225–241. Retrieved from

Wright, J. E., & Merritt, C. C., (2020). Social equity and COVID-19: The case of African Americans. Public Administration Review. Retrieved from

Yancy, C. W. (2020). COVID-19 and African Americans. JAMA 323, 1892-1892. 10.1001/jama.2020.6548

[1] “Abusonoramtivity “ is a term coined by the authors to describe the normalization of abusive behavior by institutions and individual actor

Race and COVID-19: Illuminating Inequities in Education

Young students learning.

By Cardell Orrin (Stand for the Children) and Kelsey Jirikils (Freedom Preparatory Academy).

From the 2021 edition of the Hooks Policy Papers. “Race in the Time of COVID-19.

During a planning period in 2019, I heard school administrators discussing a 7th grader who was exhibiting early signs of a seizure. With no nurse or medical professional, the principal subbed for algebra while the algebra teacher, who fortunately happened to have EMT training, monitored the student. Luckily, the student was fine, but this experience highlighted a glaring issue: our school wasn’t equipped to give students the care they needed.

One of the authors worked at a Title 1 School in Memphis whose student population consisted of over 90% students of color and over 90% low-income students. From school segregation through the 1960s, to White flight in the 1970s, to district secession in 2014, racial disparities existed in Memphis long before COVID-19 (Kiel, 2008). However, the pandemic highlighted that many of the issues in Memphis schools that disproportionately affect students of color can be solved when people in positions of power decide to prioritize them.

Access to technology was an issue in Memphis before the pandemic. In 2019, all six of the municipal districts, which primarily served White students, had either fully implemented or were in the process of implementing a 1:1 initiative (1 device for every student) (Pignolet, 2019). Shelby County Schools (SCS), which primarily serves students of color, lagged behind. While Superintendent Ray proposed a 1:1 initiative soon after he became superintendent, there was not enough support for the proposal to pass with the required funding. As of the fall of 2019, the district had settled on piloting a 1:1 initiative in only nine high schools and making plans to phase the initiative to other schools over six years (Pignolet, 2019). Compared to their White peers, students in SCS were years behind in having access to technology and in learning critical computer skills that would prepare them for post-secondary success.

The pandemic pushed SCS to accelerate their timeline and pushed us as a community to reconsider what was possible. By August of 2020, SCS brokered deals with HP and Microsoft to secure tablets and laptops for Pre-K through 12th graders. These deals were made possible through an influx of money from the CARES Act and other federal funds, the City of Memphis, and other revenue streams identified by Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration (Jaglois, 2020). Of particular note is the five million dollars invested by the City of Memphis. The City relinquished responsibility for funding education in the 2014 fiscal year when their court-ordered mandate was removed with the historic merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools (Powell, 2021). While suburban municipalities have significantly increased their direct contributions to education, Memphis is now the only city in Shelby County that does not contribute to K-12 education (Powell, 2021). COVID didn’t create the funding disparity between Memphis and other municipalities; rather, COVID showed us that disparity is a choice. COVID showed us that if the city to invest in public education, then the city can make it happen.

Furthermore, COVID highlighted that education is a community issue. Prior to COVID, teachers were an easy scapegoat for all things wrong in education. COVID showed us that, even if a teacher was doing everything right, if the student and their family didn’t have access to stable housing, food, health care, affordable childcare, and a livable income, we can’t expect learning to happen at its highest level. Due to historic inequities, many low-income families and families of color felt the brunt of the economic downturn and were thus faced with unemployment and housing insecurity (Mitropoulos, 2021). This may have caused some students to start taking on adult responsibilities such as entering the workforce to provide for their families or caring for younger siblings in near fulltime capacities (Mitropoulos, 2021). On top of this, many were dealing with pandemic-related isolation and grief without the support of mental health care. These factors manifested in a substantial rise in chronic absence during the pandemic, particularly for students of color (Mitropoulos, 2021).

It is naive for us to think that a student can come to school and be fully successful while dealing with food insecurity, or working for 20+ hours a week out of necessity, or watching their parents stress about finding work and affordable housing. If we care about the children in our community getting a quality education, then we need to create conditions that ensure each student can be physically and mentally present to receive an education. That means making housing security a priority, making childcare affordable, making sure single parents can support their families without children needing to work to make household ends meet. COVID showed us, in an intensified state, that when we ignore the interconnectedness of these issues, we do a disservice to children, families, and our community’s future. The COVID pandemic has also shown us that when we put our collective commitment and resources (local, state, and federal) towards addressing challenging situations, we can identify solutions and put them in place.

The pandemic has laid bare that as a society, we have been failing to support the holistic needs of our students, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color. In the classroom, we were allowing young people with the greatest needs to fall behind their peers in access to technology, mental health supports, and resources to support their academic achievement. Outside the classroom, we were failing to establish systems to support their families with access to housing, food, and extended financial resources. COVID didn’t cause these issues, but the pandemic has made them more apparent. During this pandemic, we have identified resources to support student education, mental health, housing, food access, and financial payments for families. It has been made readily clear that if we want to effect change, we can make that happen and the only thing stopping us is the will and courage.


The pandemic has laid bare that as a society, we have been failing to support the holistic needs of our students, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color. While ambitious and requiring national and local support, the following policy recommendations would alleviate the crisis children and families face:

  • A guaranteed minimum income for poor families which would help address housing and food insecurities; Universal health care for children and adults;
  • Increase equitable funding to schools with the purpose of improving compensation to attract and retain more highly qualified educators and support staff within schools, along with resources targeted to literacy, social-emotional supports, and high school success.
  • Expand community schools that identify needs and connect students and their families to the resources and opportunities that will support them to thrive in education and life. This includes the recognition that these are not just school and district responsibilities and should involve investments and resources from local, state, and federal governments and agencies.
  • Permanent funding to bridge the ongoing digital divide for under-resourced families that will continue in the future even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.


  • Kiel, D. (2008). Exploded dream: Desegregation in the Memphis City Schools, Law & Ineq., 26, 261-303. Pignolet, J. (2019, March 21). SCS wants to give every student a laptop to take home, but that may present
  • challenges of its own. Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved from
  • story/news/education/2019/03/21/laptops-shelby-county-schools-students-risks-research/3032466002/ Jaglois, J. (2020, August 3). The Investigators: Breaking down the cost of bridging Shelby County’s digital
  • divide. Action News 5 [Memphis]. Retrieved from investigators-breaking-down-cost-bridging-shelby-countys-digital-divide/Powell, M. (2021, June
    15. Memphis’ budget needs to redirect funds to empower and uplift our students. Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved from education-hurts-memphis-students-and-families/7698480002/
  • Mitropoulos, A. (2021, March 21). Thousands of students reported ‘missing’ from school systems nationwide amid COVID-19 pandemic. ABC News, Retrieved from eported-missing-school-systems-nationwide-amid/story?id=76063922

Watch the lecture on “Race and COVID-19: Illuminating Inequities in Education” on our YouTube page.

Beyond Mountain Top Experiences: MLK and the Rhetoric of Race

*Adapted from The Most Dangerous Negro in America”: Rhetoric, Race and the Prophetic Pessimism of Martin Luther King Jr. by Andre E. Johnson and Anthony J. Stone Jr.

On April 4, 1968, on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee in front of room 306, an assassin shot and killed the nation’s prophet of non-violence. The previous night, King delivered his infamous I’ve Been to the Mountain Top speech. In the speech, he called his audience to stand firm under the oppressive tactics of the Henry Loeb administration. He also called for them to turn up the pressure in their non-violence resistance. This meant massive economic boycotts.

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

But on the next day, King lay dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Earlier that day he had worked on his sermon for Sunday, April 7. Though he lay dead, his associates found in his pocket the sermon notes he would have preached that Sunday if he had lived. The sermon title: “Why America May Go to Hell.”

Preaching economic boycotts and reflecting on why America may go to hell, may surprise admirers of King. While King today is largely considered one of the greatest Americans to ever
live, during his lifetime—and especially near the end of his life—King was one of the
most hated men in America. In a 1966 Gallop Poll, almost two-thirds of Americans had
an unfavorable opinion of King and the FBI named King “the most dangerous Negro in

One reason for King’s declining popularity was his rhetoric on race. When examining King’s rhetoric, especially during the last year of his life, one would note that several of his speeches highlighted King’s growing understanding of race and racism. During the last year of his life, King’s confidence in American institutions or the American people living up to the ideas and ideals set forth in its sacred documents began to wane.

For instance, in his The Other America speech delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, King called on his audience to see that the movement was heading towards another stage. King grounded this newfound insight on an understanding of racism that had eluded him in the past. He proclaimed, “Now the other thing that we’ve gotta come to see now that many of us didn’t see too well during the last ten years — that is that racism is still alive in American society and much more widespread than we realized. And we must see racism for what it is… It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it’s still deeply rooted in the South.” He closed this part of the speech by lamenting that

What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of goodwill to admit.

King’s position on race and racism would become even more pronounced in his speech America’s Chief Moral Dilemma, delivered May 10, 1967, to the Hungry Club. He starts by stating that “racism is still alive all over America. Racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame. And we must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans, but simultaneously a dictatorship for Black Americans. We must face the fact that we have much to do in the area of race relations.”

King continued to address race and racism in his August 31, 1967 speech, the Three Evils of Society. In the speech, King revisited his arguments of racism and the prevailing white backlash. He argued that the “white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.” While not implying that “all white Americans are racist,” he did critique the dominant idea that “racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” For King, racism may well be the “corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization” and warned that if “America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”

Leading up to the end of his life, King argued that what held America from becoming great was its racism. He further maintained that the movement had to face a resistance grounded in the nation’s racist heritage. Led by conservatives all across the country, the white backlash led King to realize that even with the earlier victories, a majority of white people still were not on board. He began to understand at a deeper level that the principles of the country he lauded and lifted in the past were mythic constructions. Therefore, he called for a moral revolution—challenging the nation’s long-held beliefs of freedom, democracy, justice, capitalism, and fairness.

King determined that the nation was sick and wondered aloud if things could get better. In his last sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, delivered on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC., King told the congregation that it is an “unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.” For King, he realized that it was racism grounded in racist ideas and policies that hindered America from achieving its greatness.

While we do well to celebrate and commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember his challenge to us today. Let us remember that right before his death in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to dismantle racism; believing that America may just go to hell on
his way to becoming one of the most hated men in America.

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at the University of Memphis.




COVID-19 and Evictions in Memphis

By Andrew Guthrie, PhD (Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning The University of Memphis), Courtnee Melton-Fant, PhD (Assisant Professor, Division of Health Systems Management The University of Memphis), and Katherine Lambert-Pennington, PhD (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology The University of Memphis).

From the 2021 edition of the Hooks Institute Policy Papers “Race in the Time of COVID-19.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing racial inequalities in employment, financial security, and health access, and the economic repercussions have been disproportionately shouldered by women (Jin et al. 2021). Nationally and locally, Black, Latinx, and Asian people have higher rates of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality compared to White people (Lopez, Hart, & Katz, 2021). Structural racism – the intersecting and reinforcing policies, systems, and institutions that create advantages and disadvantages based on race (Bailey & Moon, 2020) – have resulted in racial disparities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the housing sector. The pandemic amplified housing insecurity, as millions of people lost income, jobs and dealt with COVID related health challenges and deaths.

Housing insecurity, lack of access to safe, affordable, and stable housing, disproportionally impacts communities of color. Black and Latino families have lower rates of homeownership, live in more segregated neighborhoods, pay more for housing, and have been at greater risk of foreclosure than White homeowners. Further, Black and Latinx households are more likely to be renters than White households; they also face evictions at a much higher rate (Greenberg et al., 2016). Given income and job loss, Benfer et al. (2020) estimate that 30-40 million renters are at risk of eviction. To help mitigate this risk and stem the likelihood of COVID transmission (Nande et al., 2021; Jowers et al., 2021), the federal government imposed a national moratorium on evictions recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and provided $25 billion dollars to states and local governments to fund emergency rental assistance.

Research has shown that the national mortarium on eviction hearings and decisions was effective in slowing evictions and allowed households to use financial resources to meet immediate needs (An et al., 2021). However, as the economy slowly recovers, and enhanced federal unemployment benefits end, the long-term impact of the pandemic on housing security is likely to be devastating. While data is not fully available, two key indicators of housing affordability- income and the proportion of income to rent cost, often referred to as cost-burden- serve as important determinants of a household’s risk for eviction. Additionally, racial disparities in housing security and employment in essential worker roles, and vulnerability to COVID-related job loss are crucial to understanding what policy steps would be most effective to address the impending housing crisis in Memphis. Manifestations of structural racism that are particularly relevant for Memphis include racial residential segregation, the proliferation of housing insecurity in Black neighborhoods, and the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx workers in the service industry.

Early Indications of Pandemic Effects

With one of the highest rates in the nation, evictions in Memphis have been an acute problem for years. Despite a state eviction moratorium in the spring and summer of 2020 and the CDC order, which was extended until October 3, 2021, eviction filings in Memphis have continued. Over eighteen thousand evictions have been
filed since the start of the pandemic and are continuing at a rate of between 200 and 300 per week (Princeton University, 2021).

Systematic analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on the housing sector is complicated by the ongoing, dynamic nature of the pandemic and the 1- to 2-year time lag in availability of most sources of social data at the fine geographic scales needed to fully understand the social and spatial dynamics at play in Memphis. In particular,
the lack of unemployment data at less than county scale obscures a crucial link in the chain of events most likely to lead to an eviction as a result of COVID: pandemic-related job loss leading to an inability to make rent. In the interest of providing as much timely information to policymakers and the public as possible, proxy measures—such as residential locations of workers in sectors especially likely to experience job loss—can approximate unavailable data.


The table below shows specific measures of COVID’s implications for housing in Memphis, as well as definitions of each measure and data sources. These measures consider vulnerability to eviction directly via pre-pandemic housing unaffordability and susceptibility to job loss as well as in a context of structural inequality and historic marginalization.




Rent-Burdened Households

% of households paying >30% of monthly income in rent

American Community Survey (2015-2019)

Black Residents

% of population who self-ID as “Black or African American”.

American Community Survey (2015-2019)

Service Workers

Number of workers in the Retail Trade, Accommodation and Food Service and Arts, Entertainment and Recreation sectors

Longitudinal Employer and Household Dynamics (LEHD) Database (2018)


Number of legal evictions recorded by the county. Expressed both as a count and as the ratio of evictions to rental households

Shelby County Housing Court (via Innovate Memphis); American Community Survey

Geospatial Analysis

Although this data is preliminary, strong spatial relationships exist in Memphis between key measures of social marginalization and economic vulnerability and the prevalence of evictions in 2020. The following four maps show these measures as densities. Density maps allow us to explore where in the city the greatest numbers of people experience eviction, housing insecurity and other social factors which increase vulnerability to both. For each map, we select a social condition to explore—i.e. paying more than 30% of one’s household income in rent, being a service worker before the pandemic or being evicted—count the number of times that condition occurs within a quarter-mile grid, and use a heat-map algorithm to smooth the result into continuous gradients based on surrounding squares’ values. All five maps use a quintile scale, with the darkest gray squares showing areas in the 80th percentile or above, next darkest the 60th-80th percentile, etc. This mapping approach allows us to see patterns of social disparities from one neighborhood to another while also focusing on neighborhoods with relatively the most intense housing injustices.

Map 1

Map 2

The second map (above) shows concentrations of Black residents. Memphis is a racially segregated city, as can be seen by how tightly concentrated the Black population is, compared even with the rent-burdened population. (i.e., Memphis is still a highly spatially segregated city, with the vulnerabilities of rent burden and service-industry employment compounded by historic disinvestment and structural racism). Note, however, that concentrations of Black residents do follow the most intense concentrations of rent burdened households quite closely.

The third map (below) shows concentrations of where workers in the retail, sales, hospitality, food service and entertainment industries lived before the pandemic. County-level data indicate workers in these sectors were disproportionately likely to have suffered job loss. Note again the general similarity with the preceding maps, with the degree of concentration falling between Black residents and rent-burdened households. In particular, the spatial relationship between workers likely to have lost jobs and households already facing unaffordable rents beforehand shows the susceptibility of their neighborhoods to an economic and health shock like COVID.

Map 3

The final two maps (page 8) show concentrations of evictions, both in absolute terms (for consistency with the preceding maps) and weighted by the number of renter households in each census block group (for consistency with standard measures in the housing field). Eviction densities do not show all the housing precarity or injustice in a neighborhood, but they do represent a rapidly-available, geographically precise measure of extreme housing injustice due to legal filing requirements. Though the scale of the (upper) absolute map is somewhat dominated by a single, intense cluster of evictions to the southwest, the overall spatial pattern is both stark and by this point familiar, tracking those of Black residents and service workers especially closely. The most intense areas of the (lower) weighted eviction density map show a largely similar shape to those of the absolute map, but do not stand out as strongly from their surroundings, likely due to smaller numbers of renter households in wealthier and/or suburban areas. It is important to note, however, that this final map shows evictions are a problem county-wide and may only appear not to be in outlying areas due to lower densities of renters.

Map 4

Map 5

We can see from these maps that the highest rates of evictions in Shelby County have a strong spatial relationship to long-standing patterns of structural inequality—particularly in the case of the unweighted map. However, the weighted map shows us that evictions are a problem throughout Shelby County in the context of an individual renter household’s likelihood of being evicted, though it is crucial to note that patterns of structural inequality still appear in the weighted map, even accounting for inter-neighborhood differences in numbers of renters. In other words, though a robust policy response is required throughout the county, special focus must be placed on neighborhoods affected by structural racial and economic inequality. Finally, the close spatial correspondence between eviction rates and pre-COVID rent burden shows that evictions are both an acute problem and a chronic one: the pandemic did not create a crisis where there was none before; in large part it seems to have pushed households who were already struggling over the edge. Understanding this does not change the need for rapid, emergency assistance to Memphians facing eviction, but it does also call for a longer-term policy response to ongoing issues of housing unaffordability and insecure tenure.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the existing housing crisis in Memphis, but the full effect of housing insecurity on eviction rates and neighborhood stability have yet to be fully revealed. The ongoing housing crisis in Memphis and the COVID-19 pandemic require multifaceted policy solutions that not only respond to immediate needs but also address the larger housing affordability issues in the city. While policy interventions are needed at all levels of government, we focus our recommendations on state and local level policies that are most relevant to the Memphis context. As shown in Figure 1, Memphis is already implementing eviction prevention and mitigation policies and working to increase housing stability.

Figure 1. Policy levers for improving housing stability

* Denotes policies and programs that are currently being utilized in Memphis


  • ŸIncrease outreach and education about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA)
    The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA), funded through the CARES Act and administered in Memphis by United Housing, provides eviction settlement funds to households who have suffered a finan- cial loss due to COVID-19 and live on less than 80% of their county’s median income. A total of 1,320 Shelby County residents received rental assistance in June. Though data are only available at the state level, the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey estimates 84,447 Tennessee households fear being evicted in the next two months. Proportional to population, Shelby County’s share of that total would be 11,593—over ten times the number currently being helped—even ignoring our high rates of pov- erty and structural inequality. Though funding is available to help significantly more households, difficulties in applying and obtaining cooperation from landlords have reduced numbers served.

    • Providing additional community outreach and education about the program and direct assistance in applying as well as encouraging landlords to participate as strongly as permitted by law are im- portant steps to ensure Memphians who could be helped are not needlessly evicted.
    • In addition, though CARES Act funds are limited to renters making less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), roughly 15% of households earning 81-100% AMI in Shelby County make more than that, but not enough to afford a median rental cost (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2021). These households may face additional risk of eviction due to the “benefit cliff” coming at an income low enough to still render most housing unaffordable. Other options should be explored for providing assistance to households facing eviction who fall outside CARES Act eligibility requirements, as a means of funding unmet needs while, crucially, holding those renter households most in need harmless.
  • Provide sustainable infrastructure and funding for the Eviction Settlement Program (ESP)
    The ESP is currently being funded with federal CARES Act dollars to provides tenants with legal assistance and mediation when they are behind on their rent. This program relies on volunteer attorneys and mediators and could provide more assistance to tenants if they had more resources. The services provided by the ESP are critical for preventing evictions and preserving affordable housing (Benfer et al, 2020, Sabbeth 2018).
  • Enact laws at the state and local level to prevent evictions and lessen the negative downstream effects
    • Tenants who are represented by attorneys are less likely to be evicted (Sabbeth, 2018), but Ten- nesseans do not have a right to counsel in eviction cases because eviction proceedings are civil actions, not criminal matters. Right to counsel laws can ensure that tenants have representation during eviction proceedings.
    • Having an eviction or eviction filing on one’s record makes it more difficult to find housing because many landlords do not want to rent to them. Eviction record sealing and eviction expungement laws can improve tenants’ access to housing following an eviction or eviction filing (Fleurant, 2020).
  • Increase investment in historically underserved communities that were disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and housing instability
    Memphis needs an estimated 30,000 affordable housing units (Innovate Memphis, 2020) and is using multiple levers to address this gap including the establishment of the Memphis Affordable Housing Trust Fund (MAHTF) and the Memphis 3.0 Plan to guide investment and land use regulation in the creation of healthy affordable communities. However:

    • The MAHTF is underfunded compared to peer cities and funding for 2021 was not included in the budget because of COVID-19 (BLDG Memphis, 2020).
    • Memphis has comparatively low capital investment that is segregated by race and poverty (Theo- dos et al, 2021). The Memphis 3.0 plan is the city’s comprehensive approach to equitably develop and invest in the city. Time will tell if the plan will be able to overcome historical and longstanding patterns of disinvestment and policy that have contributed to the current housing crisis.
  • Stronger enforcement of existing laws
    In addition to affordability issues, many Memphians live in substandard housing conditions that are harmful to their health. Like many other states, Tennessee has laws requiring landlords to maintain their properties and provide habitable conditions for tenants. Yet, these laws are not always enforced, and tenants may not be aware of these laws (Sabbeth, 2018). Enforcing these laws is necessary for increasing the supply of affordable, healthy housing and keeping tenants in their homes.
  • Increase vaccination access and uptake in structurally vulnerable communities
    Recent research has shown that neighborhoods with higher eviction filing rates have lower vaccination rates indicating that the higher risk of evictions and of contracting and passing COVID-19 are spatially con- centrated. Place-based interventions, tailored to the specific concerns and desires of these communities, are needed.

Interested in more? Watch the lecture of “COVID-19 and Evictions in Memphis” on the Hooks Institute YouTube page.


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