Early voting in presidential elections at Rockaway YMCA in Averne, Queens on Monday , October 26, 2020. (303023)
Early voting in presidential elections at Rockaway YMCA in Averne, Queens on Monday , October 26, 2020. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The 2021 city elections are shaping up as some of the most important elections in New York’s history during the COVID-19 pandemic. Candidates at all levels vying for a leadership role during the city’s recovery have a tough road ahead to get the support of Black voters, many of whom have been impacted greatly by the pandemic.

In November, during the 2020 election, a survey conducted by the African American Research Collaborative, the NAACP and the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic was the most important issue facing Black voters they felt politicians should address. Discrimination and racial justice was second.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city saw mass job loss, the closure of businesses and some of the most vulnerable people put in an even worse situation losing income, with threats of losing their homes and even loss of life. African Americans in the city have been particularly impacted.

“People are really looking to hear from the candidates about how they are going to manage this ship,” said political strategist L. Joy Williams. “The candidates’ agendas and proposed policies have to address that uneasiness that people feel about the economy and about their communities. If you have people who were insecure before COVID, they are nervous about their ability to stay in their communities post COVID.”

Blacks experienced higher infection and death rates from COVID-19 in the city. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Black and Hispanic patients were 30% to 50% more likely than whites to test positive for COVID-19. Black New Yorkers are twice as likely as white New Yorkers to die from COVID-19, according to the New York City Department of Health.

According to a 2020 survey by the Community Service Society, the unemployment rate for Black New Yorkers was 23.7% compared to white residents at 13.9%. When asked last June, 56% of Black residents lived in a household that experienced a loss in employment income since mid-March 2020.

When it came to education, the New York City Council reported last fall that more than 1,500 schools showed racial disparities in student engagement. This was due in part to the digital divide and the lack of proper, reliable internet access for many Black, low-income residents.

Even a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Black New Yorkers are faced with disparities in getting the vaccine. In February, officials from the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Program reported that of African Americans making up those eligible over the age of 65 for the vaccine only 4% had taken the first dose at the time.

“The candidates will need to not only speak to the anxieties that people have right now whether that’s housing insecurity, job insecurity, how their child’s education has been impacted by COVID. But I think they’re going to have to have a vision that voters can latch on to for the future,” Williams said.

Frenika Miller, a senior coordinator for Black Voters Matter, said that while several issues around COVID-19 are on the minds of Black voters, they are looking for candidates who have a plan to handle the pandemic and the devastating issues that came with it.

“We’re just in a place where people want it to be over,” Miller said. “Black voters are looking for a candidate that’s authentic. How are candidates going to make sure that health care is accessible to Black voters? Candidates have to prioritize equity. Right now, the information is not given to people about where they can get a vaccine. We need candidates who are committed to racial equity and the administration of it.”

Black voters are looking for someone who can not only repair pre-COVID disparities but also improve the system. In an interview, NAACP State Conference President Hazel Dukes said health, housing and education are the top issues candidates should be thinking about when it comes to the Black vote.

“All of these things are so important to our community,” she said. “We need people who can sit at a table and help make policy and negotiate for the best for our community. There are a lot of things you have to go through to get things done for your community. It’s going to take us at least two years until we get back and the economy picks up.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said that while he’s seen many of the same issues since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues affecting the Black community are now magnified. He also said the pandemic has exposed disparities and that candidates should be addressing them.

“From infection to injection, Blacks have seen the brunt of the pandemic,” he stated. “We have seen disproportionate suffering but that’s because we had disproportionate policies well before the pandemic. We need a mayor that has and can communicate a very bold vision. When you are speaking to the Black community, you have to speak to a community that has been dealing with these traumas for a very long time and demand more than what we are getting. We have Black homeowners who are worried about losing their homes, Black small business owners are worried about losing their businesses.”