When the coronavirus pandemic was first declared, Americans dutifully stayed at home to prevent outbreaks like the ones playing out in China and Italy. Although a majority of Americans continue to support quarantine orders intended to quell the spread of the virus, a growing number of anti-lockdown protests across the nation are sending a clear message that they don’t care about spreading infection or the rising death toll. The whiteness of the protests alongside the stark racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality underscores that the desire to reopen businesses is rooted in white supremacy. As if it weren’t already clear, in Michigan where the nation’s most prominent protest took place, armed white men demanded an end to the lockdown while carrying Confederate flags, swastikas, and nooses.
Ending lockdowns too early will kill more Americans—it’s that simple, and even the government’s own agencies project such a scenario. President Donald Trump has admitted it, saying, “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.” Except that ending the lockdowns now will specifically kill far more African Americans than any other demographic. The health news website MedPage referred to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on blacks as a, “Wildly disproportionate mortality.” Research shows that African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate that is, “2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and Latinos, and 2.6 times higher than the rate for Whites.” In fact, whites are the least impacted demographic in the nation. In New York City, the national epicenter of the disease, the same racialized outcomes are observed, with more African Americans being hospitalized and dying from the disease than any other racial group, followed by Latinos.
Black and brown Americans are also more impacted financially by the virus-related lockdown. A Pew Research survey found that African Americans and Latinos were far more likely to lose their jobs and lack the savings to cover their expenses than whites.
State governors who are following Trump’s demands to reopen their economies know full well that their actions will cost lives. Like Trump, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has admitted that reopening businesses will cost lives. In a private phone call to state lawmakers, Abbott said, “every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening—whether you want to call it a reopening of businesses or of just a reopening of society—in the aftermath of something like this, it actually will lead to an increase and spread. It’s almost ipso facto.” Seeing through Abbott’s agenda, Rae Martinez, the director of Texas Rising, tweeted that he, “does not care about the lives of Texans, and specifically black and brown Texans.”
Missouri Governor Mike Parson, when asked why he did not observe the government’s guidelines to wear a mask in public, said, “I think it’s up to the individuals. I don’t think that’s government’s role to mandate who wears a mask and who don’t. I go back to what I’ve said all along: It’s your personal responsibility.” That sentiment perfectly captures the conservative position on health care, policing, poverty, and so many other issues. The idea of “personal responsibility” absolves the government from accepting its obligation to solve society’s inequalities.
President Trump and Vice President Pence have also signaled in the clearest terms to their reliable voter base of vocal activists that social distancing is not necessary and that each person is responsible for their own fate. Pence came under fire for refusing to wear a mask at a recent tour of Mayo Clinic (but later wore one at a tour of a GM facility). Trump went further in refusing to wear a mask while ironically touring a mask-making factory! The White House leadership is indicating directly through body language that it does not care about the virus and feels confidently immune to it.
Staying home, wearing masks, and keeping a 6-foot radius from others in public are all actions designed for collective protection. Not only do masks protect you from contamination, they protect others from being contaminated by you. In other words, people are being asked to consider the well-being of their fellow Americans. But for decades, this nation’s laws have treated health care as an individual privilege rather than a collective right. Our lack of a national health system has ensured that existing socioeconomic differences between racial groups are reproduced in health outcomes. Now, the white anti-lockdown protesters and their favored politicians are signaling through their actions that they don’t care about black and brown lives.
The pronouncements that this coronavirus pandemic has put “everyone in the same boat,” are ignorant of the very real systemic racial differences that allow white Americans to weather the same storm with far more resilience than black and brown Americans. If we had a national health system, Americans might be closer to finding themselves in the “same boat” as one another. But as it stands, an early return to “normal” threatens the lives of people of color disproportionately. Trump knows this and has exploited it to his benefit. It is no wonder that the same people who railed against the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for All are the same people who voted for the most racist president in memory, and who are now demanding an end to social distancing measures.
Just as preexisting differences in health access and financial stability are amplifying the racial outcomes of the coronavirus, we see the continuation of long-standing racist policing that targets blacks with violence and whites with tolerance for the same infractions. Even the policing of social distancing guidelines is racist, as the New York Police Department demonstrated recently in cordially handing out face masks to crowds of white park visitors while harassing and even beating African Americans in their own communities.
The white protesters screaming in the faces of police at capitol buildings feel confident they will not be met with state violence. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out the hypocrisy of how well law enforcement showed restraint against the screaming activists, saying on Twitter, “Think about how harshly #BlackLivesMatter & #AbolishICE activists were debased, called rioters, & treated as a threat to society.” She added, “Now watch & examine how this MAGA-armed rushing of a state legislature is treated.”
We have tolerated this discriminatory and dangerous segment of society for far too long. It is time for the collective health and well-being of all Americans to be prioritized over the individual demands of a selfish minority that has dominated our political sphere and endangered our future.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.