The Real Epidemic
Covid-19 still rages and shows little signs of abating. We passed the hundred thousand count for fatalities in the US alone about a week or so ago. Temporary burials have had to be made as bodies of the dead overwhelm mortuaries and had to be contained in converted refrigerator trucks. The elderly and those with cardiovascular conditions appeared to be the most at risk until it became apparent that young seemingly healthy people were also dying.
The virus though does seem to discriminate. Black Americans including seemingly healthy young Black Americans are sickening and dying at a higher rate than really anyone else. So, what’s up? A virus can’t be racist. Why are our Black citizens dying so much faster than everyone else?
The answer lies with the pictures I chose at the opening of this piece. Those six women and men are just a few who have been overtly murdered by racism. They’re all very different. Some of them were physically fit, some of them were public servants, some worked with kids, but they all had several things in common.
- They were beloved by their families.
- They were Black.
- They were killed for being Black.
None of these people died directly from Covid-19. In fact, Gaines, Castile, and Bland were murdered years before Covid-19 even existed. (For bonus points both Gaines and Castile were murdered in front of their children. Gaines was even holding her son in her arms when she was shot dead and her son was injured as a result.)
But for centuries America has more or less ignored its own inequitable structure. Since its inception America has turned its eyes away from this uncomfortable truth. The Framers of the Constitution knew that slavery was wrong, but they didn’t end it. They wrote a few uncomfortable words condemning it but then carried on keeping slaves and in many cases not releasing them even in their last wills.
Covid-19 is a killer, but a number of things about it have caused the pandemic to serve as a lens for Americans. We’ve been able to turn our eyes away from our racist system, erase or recast the civil rights leaders of our history, and pretend that racism ended when slavery did or with universal suffrage or with the civil rights movement or when Obama was elected. But Covid-19 has forced us to look at this ugly thing straight on.
Racism isn’t just about not being able to get a job because you’re dark skinned or being called the n-word or being held back in your education or career for unstated but clear reasons. These are obvious forms of racism but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Racism is a lot more insidious. In some cases racism literally kills. There’s plenty more examples, but of the six I chose Aubrey and Bland were lynched. Aubrey was chased down the street and shot and Bland was hanged in her jail cell. Both of these young people had plans for their lives. Neither of them wanted or had any expectation that they would die the day they died.
Well, I say they had no expectation of it but being Black comes with the understanding that a white person particularly a white police officer may at any time randomly decide to hurt or kill you.
If you’re not Black just imagine that for a second. Again, the six I chose were very different. But two of them were shot and killed in their homes. They didn’t even have to go outside to be in mortal danger. Taylor was apparently asleep in her bed when the attack that resulted in her death began. Police shot her dead just after she’d been woken by them in her house. Imagine how terrifying that would have been. She did absolutely nothing wrong. She was asleep. And then these armed strangers were in her home for no reason and shot her. Imagine what parents of a Black child grown or not might feel. Any second you cannot see your child they may be targeted by white racists or by police. Even if they’re with you, you cannot necessarily protect them.
Castile’s baby daughter was in the car in the back seat when he was fatally shot. While she and her mother were sitting in the police cruiser one of the things she said to her mom was, “Mom, please stop cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.” She saw her father being murdered and recognised at the age of four that the police might kill her mother as well.
I watched my mom die of cancer a few years back. I’m never going to get over it. But my mother died of a disease and I was an adult when it happened. Castile’s little girl was four years old and her father was shot because he had skin like hers. She will carry that terror with her the rest of her life. Every time I have a little pain here or a weird cough or if I get too tired and my eye twitches in the back of my mind I remember how asymptomatic my mom’s cancer was. Every night I stare into an existential void and wonder how long before it takes me as well and whether or not I’ll have to bury my brother or my partner or my children. But I’m grown. I fear illness. That little girl will grow up looking over her shoulder knowing that anyone who isn’t Black might shoot her or her mom or someone she loves and walk away without penalty.
No four-year-old should have to stare into the void.
And this leaves scars. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s partner and the mother of his daughter when asked by police if she and her daughter were okay responded, “We’re not hurt, but mentally we’re scarred forever.”
But it’s not just mental. It is actually physical. Normally for biological stress to be set in motion you need prolonged life-threatening illness at an early age or during pregnancy or you need severe nutritional deficiency. But in extreme cases it can also be set into motion by extreme psychological stress. If a person witnesses death or lives in extreme and prolonged fear their body will start to respond.
Biological stress causes things like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, immune disorders, hypertension, and increased susceptibility to infectious disease.
This is why so many Black Americans have been felled by Covid-19.
I’m not finished. We have in the White House right now a racist idiot by any standard. Donald Trump has inspired and condoned multiple racist attacks. Jews have been murdered in synagogues because of him, Latino American children have been taken from their parents and imprisoned because of him, women have been killed because of him, and Black people continue to be killed because of him. He and his administration have also fatally mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic to the point of interfering with the work of medical professionals that would have saved tens of thousands of lives at least.
And it’s worth talking about how Donald Trump ended up being President. He did not win an election. He lost an election by a pretty decent margin. But the reason he’s been able to claim victory or pretend it was close is because of white Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump only won among white Americans. He took 54% of the white vote. That in and of itself is not really an indictment until you see the margins by which he lost everyone else especially the Black vote. 91% of Black Americans voted for Clinton and 98% of Black women voted for her.
The number of Black women who voted for Trump is so small there isn’t even a number in this chart. It’s just an asterisk. The margins are extreme. Very few nonwhite people were willing to vote for Donald Trump or even against Clinton because Donald Trump is the white supremacist candidate and under his “leadership,” white privilege is crucial.
Covid-19 laid this bare. It laid it bare in who it killed and how it killed them. It laid it bare in how white people reacted to the pandemic once they found out that Black Americans had a higher risk. And it laid it bare because while we were all isolated and asked to wear masks black people were still targeted.
Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and host of the Daily Show created a vlog entry on the protests which erupted following George Floyd’s murder. Noah has a gift for story-telling and finding the central theme. I actually disagree with his take on the rioting and I’ll get into that in a minute, but whether or not I disagree he makes several crucial points. Keep in mind, this is a man who in his childhood had to walk or drive past bodies of people burned to death in riots and whose mother bodily threw him out of a bus to escape a racially motivated attack on them. He is light-skinned because his father is a white Swiss man and his skin color was an indication that his mother had committed what was then considered a crime. His book is really amazing and you can buy it here. He may not be Jesus, but you should listen to him when he preaches.
Noah points out that a non fatal incident — the one where Amy Cooper overtly and knowingly used her white privilege to threaten the life of Christian Cooper — may have been one of the catalysts for these wide-scale protests. In isolation we Americans were sort of a captive audience. And here was this woman who absolutely knew what she was doing using her white womanhood to threaten a Black man. One of my friends said something to the effect of “she went full Rose from Get Out.” Another expressed dismay that she wasn’t surprised at the change in her voice because she’d seen it so many times before.
White Americans know about our white privilege and we’ve done nothing but protect it.
So now we have to talk about the protests and riots. Black America has had it. Black America did everything right. They voted for the right people, they respected the law, they worked their butts off, they read, they earned degrees, they built their skills, they founded businesses, they engaged politically, they founded charitable organisations, they did volunteer work, they were active in their communities, they took on work in the public sector and on and on and on. But we’re still murdering them for kicks. And Covid-19 is really focusing the lens showing not just how it’s not safe for Black Americans to go to a store with a mask lest assumptions be made, but how the legacy of racism is literally killing Black people.
So Black Americans are risking infection by marching. It’s actually a huge risk and while white people have been pretty blase about Covid-19 Black Americans have as a rule taken it very seriously. These protests in various cities across the US are explicitly about racism. They are about the continuation of white supremacy and its deadly effects on our population at large. And crucially the vast majority of Black protesters are protesting in a non-violent fashion.
But white supremacy comes in many different flavors.
There’s actually two sets of violent whites in these protests, but they’re more or less both white supremacists. There’s the overt white supremacists who are trying to make the protests violent to perpetuate the stereotype of violent blackness and use it as an excuse to be themselves violent towards Black people or give the police an excuse. Those are pretty obvious. There’s been several who went into the protests and threw bricks or bombs at police or broke into stores or in at least one case tried to run protesters over in a car and were pretty overtly trying to get Black people hurt or killed. The second group — and I’ve warned you about these guys before — are trying to appropriate the protests. These are the Bernie Bro types. They behave very much in the same way as the overt white supremacists but they use their whiteness as a shield only for themselves and will speak about the protests as if they’re only about economic inequality and not at all about race. In some cases usually on Twitter they’ll even go so far as to say that these protests are about Biden not being a good candidate.
I personally think that last is a bit laughable given the results of particularly the South Carolina primary, but as I’m routinely told by white men I’m just a stupid, disrespectful, [c-word]. What do I know? Listening to all my Black friends all the time and trusting them over the word of a white man. How silly I am.
I brought Trevor Noah into this discussion for a reason. As I said he witnessed apartheid. It defined his reality. He is who he is because of it. I won’t rate racism because it’s not my place and it’s really weird to tell someone, “your suffering is not as bad as [x].” But I’ve always wondered why America with it’s pretty clear legacy of white supremacy never had the sort of riots that South Africa had. I don’t actually believe that the racism in South Africa was or is worse than that in America. I think it was more clearly overt more recently, but we have all the same elements. And if you’re white and freaking out about what I’m saying I encourage you to treat yourself to Noah’s stand-up. He talks about racism constantly but he does it in a way that you won’t find threatening. Even if you hate everything I’ve said, go watch his stuff because you’ll a. love it, b. learn a lot, and c. feel really good at the end.
It’s actually past due America had wide-scale protests and even riots. And yes, I realize Selma and the Civil Rights movement and so forth. I know that happened. But after it happened white America killed MLK and then repackaged him in a way that we were comfortable with. The Black activists of the Civil Rights movement were put into little pigeon holes or erased their messages curated into something non-threatening to white privilege and even white supremacy.
The fires aren’t even out yet in Minneapolis, and we’re already seeing white Americans try to appropriate and repackage these protests. These protests belong to Black Americans. They are the leaders and the organizers and its their lives on the line. This is not about the DNC or economic insecurity or “Medicare for All,” this is about racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. This is about Black people being at so much mortal risk day in and day out that it makes them more likely to die from a pandemic than anyone else. This is about families expecting to lose a child to violence and having it be a question not of “if,” but of “when.” It’s about Black people having to fight just for a voice or a platform and being in constant danger of being drowned out, silenced, or repurposed if their message is not consistent with something a white person just casually wants.
In 2016 Black America and America in general chose Hillary Clinton to be our President. But because white America chose Donald Trump that’s who we got. White supremacy infected and distorted our democracy.
We will never be truly free until we are all free.