“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”- James Baldwin
The insidious reality about racism is that it never takes a break. Regardless of what is happening, racism never sits in the corner for a time out. It never takes a pause so that Black and brown people can catch their breath. Instead, it is a destructive and unwanted guest, intent on dehumanizing and destroying.
Which is why, in the midst of a global pandemic that is taking life, harming millions and turning life as we know it upside down, the data that are now being reported that Black people and other people of color (POC) are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Even in a pandemic, there are no equalizers.
Even in my little state, Maine, data are starting to show that Black Mainers are testing positive for the virus at disproportionately higher rates. Black people in Maine are 1.7 percent of the state’s population but are 3.7 percent of the infections.
As reported by Mother Jones, in Michigan Black people are 14 percent of the state’s population but 33 percent of its coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths. In Wisconsin, Black people are six percent of the state’s population but 25 percent of its coronavirus cases and 39 percent of its deaths.
When racial data are available, the racial disparities are clear across the United States. When Black folks get this new coronavirus, they are at an increased risk of dying it from it. Lest you think this is strictly an American problem, it has been reported that ethnic minorities in England and Wales are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white peers.
Of course, racism—particularly virulent anti-Blackness—is a global problem, so it would make sense that these same patterns would be seen across the globe.
Popular explanations for these discrepancies in the U.S. are that Black folks suffer from higher rates of asthma and heart disease, conditions that can elevate the risk of death in COVID-19. As well as the reality that Black people are disproportionately found in jobs that increase their exposure. Or if you want to simply be obtuse, you can use Jerome Adams logic, which says that Black folks are simply not taking personal responsibility for their health and need to lay off the booze, the drugs and the tobacco. Adams, by the way, is a Black man who happens to be the Surgeon General of the United States, and he didn’t give the same advice to white people, who do all those things at plenty high rates themselves.
While there is truth in much of what is being touted as possible reasons for these discrepancies (aside from Jerome’s nonsense), what about going deeper and talking about structural and systemic racism as the root cause?
Why are Black people disproportionately affected with certain ailments? Why even when we take away the economic arguments do we see these same ailments affecting high-earning Black folks?
What if I told you the answer is racism.
When you are in a Black body—no matter how many letters you have after your name, how famous you are, where you live or how much money you have in the bank—racism is a daily reality, from the interpersonal racism of “nigger” to the implicit bias that tells you that your physical pain and discomfort is not real or worthy of treatment. Biases that lead to early death, as was the case for Rana Zoe Mungin, a beloved Brooklyn teacher and Wellesley graduate, who was turned away from the hospital several times despite clear symptoms of coronavirus infection, at one point even being told that her condition was a “panic attack.”
In recent years we have ramped up our discussions of racism enough that diversity, equity, inclusion and implicit bias are trendy words to throw around, but what we haven’t done is take concrete actions to dismantle racism. Because in reality, to dismantle racism would require us to dismantle whiteness and frankly, that is a much harder investment for a plurality of white people to make.
There is also the reality that dismantling racism would be a powerful indictment on the harm of whiteness and the white supremacy that is part and parcel of that identity.
The same whiteness that is currently throwing a temper tantrum across the country demanding that the country reopen now, despite a lack of adequate testing and tracing mechanisms, even as the daily rate of infection continues to soar.
After all, now that we know enough to know that it is Black folks and other POC who are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus, we might as well open the joint back up, right? Take a gamble that it might be a few MeeMaws and the Black folks who end up dying en masse. MeeMaw lived a full life and is old, even if she is white, and Black folks? Well, does anyone really care outside of anti-racist spaces?
This is the same whiteness that tells us to vote and trust that the system will deliver us a more benevolent leader in November. Whiteness that clings to childlike fantasies that racism will simply die out as the country grows more racially diverse, not understanding that racism is about power and privilege and that whiteness as the preferred norm requires Blackness as the abnormal.
In early April, novelist Arundhati Roy wrote: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Initially when this piece was making the rounds, I dared to believe that we might be willing to be the change but in recent days, as warm spring days revealed millions across the country disregarding physical distancing and the chorus growing louder to be freed from our homes, I am less hopeful.
America was built on racism and increasingly it looks like racism, and its intersecting cousin classism, might be a major cause of our death as a nation. This moment in time requires us to move beyond our norms but we are too deeply entrenched in our norms that disregard the lives of Black people, other POC, working class and poor people—as well as any other marginalized people. This frenetic rush to return to normal is not simply about the delusional gun-toting protesters across the country. It’s the casual comments that populate media feeds from the most comfortable denizens of our nation. It’s the people who can stay at home because they have the means to survive in this moment but who choose to leave the house because of boredom or the feeling of missing their lives and friends.
Change is hard and there is a reason that most of us avoid it, but to avoid change when dancing around our own mortality is indeed to have a death wish.
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