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Our White Supremacist Pandemic
America's coronavirus response reflects a society built on the idea that people of color are expendable.
The disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States can be viewed through many different lenses. It is a reflection of our sinister and profit-driven healthcare system; of our cruel and incompetent government; of our threadbare and indifferent welfare state; of our greedy and barbaric business class; of—well, you get the picture. American society is so fundamentally broken that the list could go on for hours.
But perhaps more than anything, it is a reflection of a society built on white supremacy. At every level, in virtually every part of America, people of color are paying the highest price in this pandemic—and we have to start seriously seeing both the failure to get COVID-19 under control and the push to end stay-at-home orders and force people back into dangerous work situations as yet another in the long line of attacks by a white supremacist state on people of color.
On April 6, Louisiana became one of the first states to release Covid-19 data by race: While making up 33 percent of the population, African-Americans accounted for 70 percent of the dead at that point. Around the same time, other cities and states began to release racial data in the absence of even a whisper from the federal government — where health data of all kinds is routinely categorized by race. Areas with large populations of black people were revealed to have disproportionate, devastating death rates. In Michigan, black people make up 14 percent of the population but 40 percent of the deaths. (All data was current as of press time.) In Wisconsin, black people are 7 percent of the population but 33 percent of the deaths. In Mississippi, black people are 38 percent of the population but 61 percent of the deaths. In Milwaukee, black people are 39 percent of the population but 71 percent of the deaths. In Chicago, black people are 30 percent of the population but 56 percent of the deaths. In New York, which has the country’s highest numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, black people are twice as likely to die as white people. In Orleans Parish, black people make up 60 percent of the population but 70 percent of the dead. Data from the Louisiana Department of Health shows that neighborhoods in the parish with large numbers of black residents have been hit hardest.
The statistics for Latinx people tell a similar story; a recent analysis from the Guardian found that they are being killed by coronavirus at three times the rate of white people.
There is just no escaping it. Look at this map of the hardest-hit communities in New York City, which shows an overwhelming connection between race and the impact of coronavirus. Look at this Times list of the biggest COVID-19 clusters across the country:
Look at the kinds of workers who are on the front lines of the crisis, exposing themselves to the most risk while the rest of us get to stay home: subway workers, postal workers, warehouse workers, grocery workers. People of color are overrepresented in frontline industries; they are much less likely to be able to work from home than white people.
None of this is some accident. It is how American society has explicitly been constructed since the moment of its birth. We are a country built on slavery and we have never shaken off the fundamental tenet that white people exist in America to be served while everyone else exists to do the serving, no matter the cost to their well-being. It’s not a mystery why people of color are dying at higher rates than white people. The link between inequality and health is very well-established.
Now here is where we get to the heart of the matter. It’s not shocking, in a white supremacist society, that people of color are faring worse during this pandemic. But we have to go further than that. We have to start asking thornier questions, like: does anyone seriously doubt that the clamor to “reopen” the country—itself a racialized concept—would be this loud if white people were going through the same level of hell as people of color? Would the governor of Georgia have moved to get businesses restarted so quickly if 80 percent of the COVID-19 patients in his state were white instead of black? Would South Dakota’s governor have been so insistent on defying calls to shut her state down if South Dakota’s coronavirus cases were not so overwhelmingly centered on its small Latinx population? Would Andrew Cuomo be so resistant to letting more people out of prison if New York’s prison population was whiter? Would the Trump administration be so blasé about the levels of death it is helping inflict on this country if the coronavirus was killing more white people?
The answers to these questions should be clear: If the coronavirus was affecting white people as much as everyone else in America, governments would be doing far more. There would be a broader level of support for people, and there would be a greater desire to protect everyone. (There also might not be people holding up literal Nazi slogans in the street demanding a return to work.) Instead, governments from the Trump administration on down are hoping that they can insulate white people from the worst of this disease and let everyone else pay the highest price—and that enough white people will be fine with this that maybe Trump can win another term in November. A cursory glance at America’s past and present would show that there have been far riskier bets to make.