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December 13, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Food, Fitness, and Fatalities

by Etienne C. Toussaint and Sabine O'Hara

It’s not every day that an afternoon run turns into an execution. When most people think about the health impacts of running, they likely call to mind the insights of public health researchers and medical doctors. Scientists tell us, for example, that jogging at a low to moderate pace for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can reduce the risk of heart attack, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. And we have all been told by a doctor or two that regular physical activity prevents obesity and diabetes. Yet, not all forms of running and outdoor activity are beneficial to one’s health.

In fact, in some cases, the health impacts of running are less a matter of how one runs and more a question of who or where. For 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, running became a death sentence when he was hunted and gunned down on February 23, 2020, by white vigilantes for jogging in the wooded outdoors of Satilla Shores, Georgia. And, for Christian Cooper, birdwatching in Central Park on Memorial Day became an endangerment when a white woman who was walking her dog called the New York Police Department and pretended that he was threatening her life. Who? Arbery and Cooper are Black. Where? They dared to pursue their chosen outdoor activities in areas claimed as white.

Observant visitors will discover that the Anacostia River forms the racial and socioeconomic demarcation line in the Dis-trict of Columbia.

Observant visitors will discover that the Anacostia River forms the racial and socioeconomic demarcation line in the Dis-trict of Columbia.


In the age of COVID-19, the health benefits of daily exercise have never been more important, particularly in Black communities where the impact of the novel coronavirus has been especially devastating. From New York City to Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, the virus has laid bare the difficulties that countless Black Americans face while attempting to live a healthy lifestyle. Whether at the hands of fellow citizens like George Zimmerman, or under the knees of aggressive police officers like Derek Chauvin, overt acts of racial injustice threaten the safety of Black people who venture outdoors to purchase snacks, exercise, or simply to play.

Such barriers have triggered a Black fatality rate from COVID-19 that is 2.4 times higher than the rate for Latino Americans, 2.5 times higher than the rate for Asian Americans, and 2.7 times higher than the rate for white Americans. While these numbers are shocking, they merely underscore a legacy of social and environmental injustices levied against Black and brown communities across the United States. Indeed, the earliest forms of organized policing in America were designed to patrol for enslaved Africans who ran away from their masters. According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols functioned to “chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves” and “to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts.”

More than 150 years after the abolition of chattel slavery, Black Americans still find themselves on the run from unmitigated and brazen acts of white supremacy. Yet, aside from overt acts of racial discrimination, it is covert and systemic structural racism that perhaps most frustrates the health trajectory of Black lives. For many Black neighborhoods across the country, a history of inequitable laws and public policies—what Richard Rothstein calls The Color of Law—have limited access to safe green spaces for outdoor exercise. Even more, access to healthy, nutrient-rich, and unprocessed foods in Black neighborhoods is often scarce. It is therefore no wonder that so many Black communities have fallen prey to pre-existing health conditions—from obesity to diabetes and heart disease—that render Black lives vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Modern Apartheid in the Nation’s Capital

The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., illustrates the drastic health inequities that play out across racial and class lines in cities across the United States. The District is administratively organized into eight wards of roughly equal population. However, both socioeconomically and demographically, D.C.’s wards are anything but equal. In Ward 3 in the northwest quadrant of the city where the population is 78 percent non-Hispanic white, for example, household incomes are almost six times as high as in Ward 8 where the population is 95 percent non-Hispanic Black. Conversely, unemployment rates in Ward 8 are six times higher than in Ward 3 (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1: Socioeconomic Information by Ward in Washington, D.C.
socioeconomic information ward 1 ward 2 ward 3 ward 4 ward 5 ward 6 ward 7 ward 8
household income $113,972 $209,147 $257,224 $123,353 $92,425 $140,853 $56,759 $45,239
Unemployment 5.1% 3.8% 3.7% 9.8% 14% 6.2% 10% 22%
Table 2: Demographic Information by Ward in Washington, D.C.
DEMOGRAPHICS ward 1 ward 2 ward 3 ward 4 ward 5 ward 6 ward 7 ward 8
total population 82,859 77,645 83,152 83,066 82,049 94,290 74,290 81,133
children under 18 12% 5% 13% 20% 17% 14% 24% 30%
people over 65 2% 6% 13% 3% 2% 3.3% 0.3% 0.2%
black (non-hispanic) 33% 10% 5.6% 59% 77% 43% 95% 95%
white (non-hispanic) 40% 70% 78% 20% 15% 47% 2% 3%
hispanic 21% 9% 8% 19% 6% 5% 2% 2%
asian 5% 10% 8% 2% 2% 5% 0.3% 0.5%

Observant visitors will discover that the Anacostia River forms the racial and socioeconomic demarcation line in the District of Columbia. The closer to the demarcation line a neighborhood is located, the lower its socioeconomic and health outcomes, and the higher its percentage of non-white residents. Such disparities reflect broader inequities in access to food and fitness. For example, Ward 2 boasts 19 miles of bike paths for its 70 percent non-Hispanic white residents, while Ward 8 offers only 0.5 miles. Further, vacant and blighted lots comprise 18 percent of Ward 8, but only 8 percent of Ward 3’s landscape. Even more, there are almost 10 times as many full-service grocery stores per 1,000 residents in Ward 3 than in Ward 8, which contributes to the existence of Food Apartheid neighborhoods in D.C.’s poorest areas (see Figure 1). Unlike the familiar (yet neutral) term, food desert, the term food apartheid more accurately captures the deliberate and racialized nature of food segregation in cities across America.

As might be expected, the lack of access to full-service grocery stores and opportunities for outdoor exercise in D.C.’s predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods has resulted in shockingly disparate health outcomes. For examples, Ward 8 has an obesity rate of 45 percent, or almost 10 percent above the national average, while Ward 3 has a rate of only 8 percent. Diabetes rates show similar disparities (see Figure 2). 

Figures 1 and 2

Figures 1 and 2

With limited access to fresh nutrient-rich food and safe green space, it is unsurprising that, prior to COVID-19, life expectancies in Wards 7 and 8 (D.C.’s predominantly Black wards) were 72 years and 70 years respectively, while residents of Wards 2 and 3 (D.C.’s predominantly white wards) could expect to live to age 82 and 86. The emergence of COVID-19 has only worsened these statistics. Ward 8 now accounts for the highest number of deaths in Washington, D.C., from COVID-19 and, overall, Black Washingtonians account for 75 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In the so-called age of pandemics, persistent disparities in health outcomes have been sharply amplified.

As historians Robin D. G. Kelley and Walter Johnson underscore in their coedited volume, Race Capitalism Justice, the health challenges facing Black lives in the United States are deeply intertwined with the structure of American capitalism and its corporatized food system and global food supply chains. Upon closer inspection, one discovers in America’s racialized capitalist economy the commonplace subjugation of Black and brown people, from chattel slavery to modern-day so-called Black ghettos rife with income and wealth inequity. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and brown people and immigrants have been labeled as “essential,” yet sacrificial, workers, comprising the disposable building blocks in an economic landscape that Black Studies and Political Science Professor Cedric Robinson famously called “racial capitalism.”

The Eight Wards of Washington, D.C.

The Eight Wards of Washington, D.C.


The Morals of the Market

Now, more than ever, American Democracy demands innovative public policies that can dismantle the embeddedness of racial capitalism in sociopolitical life. One solution emerges from the historic “freedom dreams” of Washington, D.C.’s Black and brown residents. During the height of Jim Crow segregation, D.C. was dotted with community-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores and cottage industry “hucksters” that brought vegetables and meat to neighborhoods across the city. Many of these stores leveraged cooperative economics to forge a pathway toward economic uplift for Black and brown Americans weighed down by the oppressive forces of racial discrimination.

For example, the District Grocery Store (DGS) cooperative, a network of cooperatively owned small businesses across the District, pooled community capital to establish a localized and culturally appropriate food economy. Unfortunately, the outmigration of white citizens to the suburbs, coupled with the growth of big-box supermarkets in affluent D.C. neighborhoods after the civil rights movement, triggered market forces that put most DGS stores out of business. The escalation of neoliberal politics during the administration of President Ronald Reagan that favored privatization, deregulation, and reduction in government spending only furthered the stifling of alternative ownership models for small-business development.

The historic squelching of cooperatively owned small businesses that met the food needs of marginalized communities across Washington, D.C., begs the question: What role did law and public policy play in paving the road (or turning a blind eye) toward the pervasive income and health inequities that plague Black America today? As large-scale franchised grocery stores pushed small-scale grocery cooperatives and hucksters out of business under the forces of free market capitalism, what ethical code guided the operation of the economic marketplace? And, as the purchasing power in D.C.’s lower income neighborhoods in the urban core and south and east of the Anacostia River declined, what were the countervailing forces that sought to stop the outmigration of full-service grocery stores? Put simply: What were the morals of the market?

The answer surprisingly surfaces from a common misunderstanding of Adam Smith, the so-called father of market economics. In his famous work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the foundation for free market capitalism by conceptualizing the economic marketplace as an interaction between countless consumers and producers pursuing their individual utility and profit maximizing goals while being “led by an invisible hand.” With an invisible hand guiding the ethical compass of the marketplace, economists justified the neoliberal quest for an unregulated market with a general equilibrium theory of economics (defined by the laws of supply and demand) governed by the principle of Pareto optimality. Pareto optimality is a minimalist moral framework that defines its optimal state as one where all resources have been fully utilized and no person’s individual utility can be improved without reducing the individual utility of another. From a belief in the virtues of Pareto optimality came a commitment to the ethic of neutrality and colorblindness in market functioning.

However, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which Adam Smith considered his most important work, Smith argued that the true power of the market was its ability to achieve socially desirable outcomes from the self-interested pursuits of countless individuals operating within a discrete moral frame. In other words, market economics flounders without a clear moral compass to keep it on course. To Smith, the socially optical outcome could not be achieved without a moral frame. Importantly, the morals of the market could not be forced upon individuals. Instead, market morality emerged as human behavior was regulated by virtues of sympathy and compassion.

Accordingly, although the market economy embraces the self-interested goals of individual market actors, it also requires the collaborative and communal ideals of citizenship—what one might call “beneficence”—that seek to minimize circumstances where some people become mere means for the selfish ends of others. As Immanuel Kant argued, an unwillingness to recognize the intrinsic worth of all peoples is an affront to the concept of human dignity. Taken together, a market governed by efficiency, yet guided by beneficence, establishes the conditions for justice.

Food Justice in the Twenty-First Century

In the age of COVID-19, traditional food systems have proven inadequate to meet the needs of low-income communities. In fact, centralized food systems with long supply chains and multiple hand-off points do not serve anyone’s long-term needs. Instead, they have proven detrimental to countless low-income Americans who work in food packaging, food distribution, and food delivery as so-called essential workers and, consequently, bear the heightened health risks of COVID-19 without added protection or compensation.

Washington, D.C.’s history of localized food markets powered by cooperative economics reveals the power of community-based food systems to ignite community empowerment and mitigate systemic racism. When coupled with modern technologies that facilitate urban agriculture, from rooftop farms to soil-less hydroponic and aquaponic systems, to community farmers markets and cooperatively owned ventures, such local food systems can help to disrupt an industrial-scale global food system that has fallen short. However, when urban food markets carve out opportunities for urban agriculture buoyed by modern technology, such local markets must be shaped by a commitment to social and economic justice. The University of the District of Columbia’s innovative Urban Food Hubs Initiative, alongside the pro bono lawyering of the Community Development Law Clinic at the David A. Clarke School of Law, demonstrates the added importance of public investment by public universities to build local capacity through applied research, innovation, training, and resource development.

To be sure, these models are not anti-market. Rather, they recognize the ability of decentralized markets to reflect the localized and cultural interests of individuals and communities. In so doing, they seek to combat the social disruption of markets run amok under neoliberal ideals that no longer achieve the beneficial goals of market making. Instead, neoliberal markets devolve into what Mariana Mazzucato calls “market taking”—individual accumulation based on pre-existing accumulation facilitated by public investments. To shift from taking to making, markets must be structured to promote the collaborative and communal ideals of democratic citizenship, values that benefit the public interest.

The work of economist and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom provides guideposts for the development of new market models based on collaboration and trust. Ostrom’s research revealed that economic actors, when given the opportunity to build norms of reciprocity and trust, can successfully develop innovative institutional frameworks capable of solving private utility and public goods dilemmas. According to Ostrom, even when individuals hail from diverse cultural backgrounds and disparate experiences, they can leverage trust to strategically organize themselves to benefit from trade, mitigate risks, and preserve natural resources. Thus, the task for modern governments must be determining how best to support the establishment of norms of reciprocity and trust among citizens to enable creative institutional frameworks to manifest.

One opportunity arises from a legal doctrine that builds upon the very concept of trust—the public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine is a common law principle in the United States, stemming from English law, that recognizes a trust relationship between government and citizenry whereby the sovereign holds in trust for public use certain natural resources—such as forests, minerals, fisheries, and shorelines—regardless of the private ownership of the land. Although the doctrine has traditionally been invoked to uphold a public right to access navigable waters for commercial navigation and fishing, a more expansive interpretation of the doctrine could suggest an affirmative duty for the government to protect public access rights to public land in urban spaces. Policies guided by a progressive reading of the public trust doctrine would counter the narratives of individualism and private gain that privilege the creation of competitive economic marketplaces that too often lead to inequitable distributive outcomes.

The community land trust (CLT) is an example of a legal entity that builds upon norms of reciprocity and trust. Across the country, CLTs have been used to acquire and retain permanent ownership of land held in trust in perpetuity for the benefit of the community. The CLT makes the land available to other entities through long-term ground leases while maintaining community control over land use through a democratically elected board of directors. This model was successfully used in Chicago, Illinois, to create an organization called NeighborSpace that operates a city-funded community land trust. NeighborSpace purchases tracts of land, protects land from commercial development on behalf of the community, and provides resources for community members.

Black Americans still find themselves on the run from unmitigated and brazen acts of white supremacy.

Running the Next Mile

Running in America may always pose risks for certain populations. But vulnerable populations shouldn’t have to run alone. Localized food economies and dedicated public spaces represent more than strategies to reduce food insecurity and mitigate health disparities. They also facilitate the social interactions necessary to establish norms of reciprocity and trust. Such norms are key to dismantling the persistent structures of social and environmental injustice that have long pervaded low-income Black and brown communities across the United States. Perhaps by addressing local access to food and outdoor exercise, we can begin to reconstruct a more resilient and safe future for everyone.

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Etienne C. Toussaint

Associate Professor of Law, UDC David A. Clarke School of Law

Etienne C. Toussaint is an associate professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia.

Sabine O'Hara

Distinguished Professor, University of the District of Columbia

Sabine O’Hara is a distinguished professor in the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Science at the University of the District of Columbia.