Posted on May 9, 2020

What White Americans Can Learn About Racism From the Coronavirus

Vanessa Williams, Washington Post, May 8, 2020

No single crisis or event in recent history has so sharply magnified the country’s racial disparities and inequities as the coronavirus. Not even Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, whose death and destruction primarily affected people of color, but were localized.

The coronavirus is omnipresent. It has infected people in every state, in big cities and rural communities, and from every economic class. It has infected and killed men and women of all ages and all races. Even so, in the words of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans and other people of color have shouldered “a disproportionate burden of illness and death” from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. A new study this week, led by Amfar and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, found that disproportionately black counties account for 22 percent of all counties but have 52 percent of coronavirus cases and 58 percent of deaths from covid-19.

Darren Hutchinson, a law professor who studies the law’s impact on race and gender, thinks white Americans can learn a thing or two about racism from the pandemic. How the fear and uncertainty they are feeling now is not unlike what African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others feel all the time.Hutchinson, an associate dean at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, elaborated on that notion during a recent conversation with About US. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Unlike other disasters and crises, the coronavirus seems to have laid bare the structural inequities across the board — in health care, economics, even in criminal justice — all at once. Do you agree? How is that affecting society?

Everyone’s vulnerable. In terms of geography, it’s all over the country. Every age group potentially can be affected. It’s across gender. And to the extent that structural racism impacts people along all of those axes, this is a moment where it’s really going to stand out. In terms of the fear that a lot of people, generally, have right now — and I know it’s higher among people of color — but this is the fear and anxiety that people of color experience on a daily basis. The virus is not only showing us how pervasive inequality is, it’s also giving us a moment to think about how living daily in that structural racism creates this anxiety.

You know how you’re scared to go outside right now because you don’t know if the virus might be transmitted to you? How you’re scared you might lose your job right now and you don’t know how you’re going to take care of your kids? That’s how racism feels every day. … You cannot only see inequality in things like health care, but feel this emotional experience of fearing something that’s out there but you can’t really control it. That’s how racism works.


Some black people are suspicious that because the virus has disproportionately affected black people, some government leaders don’t care and that’s why they’re rushing to open up the economy. Does that sound like a conspiracy theory or is there something there?

Black people often accept conspiracy theories, particularly when it comes to illness and health because of the negative experiences historically, like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. To a great extent in communities that are marginalized, often society starts attacking victims of disease. When AIDS was a gay disease, people attacked the victims. When it became a black disease, it became even worse. A lot of the history of the failure of government to fund research on AIDS, a lot of that had to do with racism and homophobia. There are many historical examples of failure to take illnesses seriously because the impact was more felt in marginalized communities. The other issue is we have a president who is sort of not a fan of science. That makes it even more difficult to develop a strategy that not only protects everyone but protects the most vulnerable people.

I think there is something to the fact that — blacks in red states can’t control statewide elections and don’t have power at the state level — we are seeing lot of red states move toward reopening. In many of those states, blacks have power at the local level but don’t have it statewide, but they are most impacted by the virus and these are places where they are a significant part of the population. Georgia is a classic example of that statewide. They have a Republican governor who is moving aggressively to reopen the state, but the disease is very prominent in Atlanta and Albany, places highly populated by blacks. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think there is a degree of callousness toward the population most affected by the illness on the part of some of the governors pushing reopening.

And calling this an Asian disease, a Chinese illness, made race front and center with this virus from the very beginning. In early American history, particularly the 19th century, there was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment toward people from China that had to do with this perception of filth and illness. We’re seeing that same discourse today, the increase in racism toward Asians.


Back to people of color who are concerned that their political leaders aren’t being responsive to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus in their communities. What are they to do?

How do you get something beneficial for your community when, not only do you not control the statewide political apparatus, but it is hostile to you? The problem is not only that blacks are not widely represented at the state level, the state politicians, because of partisanship and racism, they are actually hostile to black voters. There’s a lot of reporting on how these governors did not implement social distancing measures early on, but if you look at the county level, in Florida, for example, before the governor issued his executive order, the vast majority of the population in the state was under state-at-home orders because of county and city level restrictions. It’s important to remember in those counties that blacks and Latinos have a larger voice and cannot discount the importance of local politics. Another angle, but now it’s not the best angle, is the federal government. When states fail, the federal government has been there to assist vulnerable communities. Right now we don’t have that. Vulnerable communities cannot look to the Trump administration for support. He’s telling people to go out and resist social distancing. This is a bad moment, probably the worst moment, for a pandemic to appear, particularly for people of color who need to rely on the federal government because the state is not sympathetic to their concerns.