For now, forget the conspiracy mongers, the anti-vaxxers, and those who falsely think wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID will kill you. They are unworthy of being taken seriously. Ignore the camo-clad, ammosexual lockdown protesters who insist we should all get back to work, and who mock social distancing as an unnecessary burden at best, a trial run for tyranny at worst.
Ignore them, or at least abandon hope of engaging them as if they were open to persuasion by dint of facts and logic. They are a fringe — a dangerous fringe to be sure, but a fringe nonetheless — and other than a close eye from those who monitor potential domestic terrorists, they do not merit the attention they receive. Make no mistake: they are hardly indicative of a majority mindset. Most Americans oppose their message and worry about opening things up too quickly, without a clear path for protecting public health.
In other words, the protesters do not speak for the so-called “common man.” Nor do they represent some vulnerable working class for whom we should have sympathy. Data suggests they are not by and large those who have lost income or reasonably fear economic ruin. While black and brown folks are being most hammered by job loss, people of color who have lost work in the wake of COVID represent only five percent of the protesters. Meanwhile, whites who say they haven’t lost work or income represent nearly 7 in 10 who are protesting lockdowns.
The protests are not about economic pain: they are excuses for right-wingers to signal their tribalism and perform a politic that begins and ends with “owning the libs.” They perceive liberals as the ones pushing science and a concern for the collective good over hyper-individualism. As such, protesting shutdowns and social distancing has become a form of conservative cosplay meant to indicate one’s commitment to the cause.
Edmund Burke, it’s not, nor even William F. Buckley. But it’s the best the right can do in an age where Sean Hannity is the closest thing they have to a philosopher-king.
So for now, let us put aside fools whose irrationality places them beyond reason, and instead focus on what we can control: namely, determining how we find common cause with rational people and build lasting coalitions for change, after the crisis of COVID has passed. How do we build a movement that can promote the common good, build solidarity across lines of identity, and potentially serve as a new governing majority in years to come?
These are questions made more salient in the wake of the pandemic because the crisis is demonstrating (for the first time for some), what can happen in a society long indulgent of the notion that some lives are less valuable than others. While people of color have long known their lives were perpetually to be found on the nation’s discount rack, it is only now that some white folks are beginning to notice that they too may be headed for markdown.
One wonders, what must older white Americans think when they hear people with whom they so often make common cause, suggesting they are expendable in the service of the economy? Or when they hear Ben Shapiro say that although it’s sad if an 81-year-old dies from COVID, it’s not as if the person was 30 and had a whole life ahead of them. After all, life expectancy is only 80, so…
What must white folks with pre-existing medical conditions, or whose children are immuno-suppressed think about the cavalier way in which so many of their number speak of rolling the dice on people’s health and lives — on their health and lives? Does it make them wonder about who their real teammates are in this society? Perhaps rethink their attachments to a conservatism they thought served them, but which now treats them and those they love as expendable, just as it always did people of color and the poor of all colors?
So far, it probably isn’t having that effect. Rethinking longstanding beliefs is difficult. And white Americans are not used to seeing ourselves in a boat alongside peoples of color. But might it be possible to use this moment to teach at least some white folks a new lesson?
It’s a lesson about how difficult it is to contain the notion of human disposability once released from its bottle like a sadistic genie. It’s a lesson about how that notion, cancerous and deadly, metastasizes in ways that can consume even those who believed they were safe.
Because once a nation declares that black and brown and poor people are worth less than white folks and the affluent, it’s only a matter of time before, having become inured to the implications of that hierarchy, society trains its sights on you. Indifference is not long divisible.
Shorter version: what goes around most definitely comes the fuck around.
And now it has. Those who would elevate white life and monied life above others will think nothing of elevating younger over older and healthier over sicker. Racism, classism, ageism, and ableism intersect in a taxonomy of higher and lower orders of humankind.
Meaning we are all at risk from the vagaries of inequality, and all have an interest in equity. If we live long enough, we will all grow old. So too, we will likely experience some infirmity that puts us at risk, not only from a deadly virus but from our younger and healthier neighbors, more concerned with maintaining their sense of normalcy than with our continued existence.
Think about that, and what it says about the dangers of remaining nonchalant in the face of human suffering. And realize this is not the only example we have.
It’s visible in the way the war on drugs — waged mostly on people of color whose suffering was of little concern to white folks — left us bereft of the treatment options now needed by millions of our family members, caught up in the opioid crisis. Having decided to treat drug addiction as a crime problem rather than health problem, white folks, by and large, voted for politicians who promised jail cells as the answer to the scourge. It would be those other people who paid the price after all.
Yet here we are, in a place where pharmaceutical employees mocked the white folks they knew were disproportionately dying from the pushing of their products. Because they didn’t care about those to whom they referred as “pillbillies,” any more than most white folks cared about so-called “crack babies” in the 1980s.
It’s the same phenomenon one could observe during the Great Recession, when the housing market collapsed, having been propped up by risky loans offered by brokers who made money whether or not families went into default. And the only reason things got to that point, ultimately bringing down millions of homeowners and the economy, was because we had turned a blind eye to predatory lending in black and brown communities for years. We lectured folks in those spaces about how they needed to be smarter borrowers, and how it would be against the principles of the market to regulate such practices. And then, having not been stopped when they ripped off families of color, those same forces expanded into white spaces and sucked the life out of them too.
Not to mention, the vanishing of jobs from salt-of-the-earth white people places in the Rust Belt? Do you think that shit was without precedent? Please. Those manufacturing jobs began departing the urban core in the 1970s. And when they left, most white folks told the persons of color who bore the brunt of deindustrialization to pick up and move to where other jobs were. They issued no call to “bring the jobs back” to black and brown communities. They were indifferent, and even hostile to those communities, blaming the people who lived there for their poverty, unemployment and the crime that followed. But now, those same people seek forbearance and sympathy?
Are you beginning to notice a trend here?
And as you look out at a nation whose leadership has all but announced its willingness to sacrifice millions of us — and not just those other people — to the Gods of commerce, it’s worth asking, have you had enough yet?
Because the lesson is clear.
When black folks told us of their pain and warned us of the corrosive effects of inequality, we should have listened.
When they tried to warn us about the interior rot at the heart of our culture — a decay premised on the unequal assignment of human value based on one or another category — we should have listened.
When they called up to us from the metaphorical steerage section of the Titanic, we should have listened rather than turning up the dulcet tones of more enjoyable music to drown out their cries.
After all, just because we couldn’t hear the screams, didn’t mean the ship wasn’t going down.