The COVID-19 pandemic has once again exposed what ‘White America’ believes to be of value in the US, argues CJ Werleman.
The United States surpassed 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths on Wednesday. The victims are not nameless. They are overwhelmingly elderly, but also predominately poor, black and Latino, which goes a long way to explaining why their deaths have imparted relatively little emotional impact on a majority of the country or, more specifically, on White America.
The US is known for honouring its fallen like no other nation on earth, but the lives of 100,000 Americans have passed without notice, remembrance or even a moment of silence. The President hasn’t tweeted about the dead or offered public condolences to their families and Fox News barely mentioned the tragic milestone in passing.
Donald Trump did take to Twitter but only to praise NASA and SpaceX and spread patently false claims about voter fraud, while his son Eric Trump celebrated a one-point pop in the stock market, tweeting: “GREAT DAY for the DOW!!”
To put it bluntly, white America is pretending that this catastrophe isn’t happening, the same way it pretends racial socio-economic inequalities do not exist. The same way it has long pretended that structural racism is a concocted liberal myth. The same way that the education system erases or whitewashes the country’s history of racism, apartheid and genocide from high school textbooks.
If 250 years of slavery, a century of racial segregation and continued racial inequalities in the country’s social, economic, political and justice institutions haven’t imparted upon these people an understanding that, in the US, the lives of black and brown people don’t matter, then I’m not sure what more is required.
“The people who are disproportionately affected are those who are generally excluded from the category of the idealised American community,” says Micki McElya, an expert in the politics of mourning and history professor at the University of Connecticut.
Those most affected by the Coronavirus sit outside white American folklore. The dead are not CEOs, financial managers, lawyers, farmers, celebrity actors or athletes, but retirees, meat-packing workers, retail employees and prisoners.
It is not a stretch to imagine that, had al-Qaeda targeted buildings in impoverished suburban neighbourhoods on 11 September 2001 – instead of high-rise buildings in downtown Manhattan, New York, exclusively killing 3,000 black Americans – then not a single 9/11 memorial would have been constructed or observed and there most certainly would never have been a revenge-based ‘War on Terror’.
100,000 dead Americans equates to the victims of 30 9/11 attacks, two Vietnam Wars, 20 times the number of US soldiers killed during the D-Day landings, and 25,000 times the number killed when Ansar al-Sharia militants attacked two US Government buildings in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
But these disasters have been mythologised through the lens of racial whiteness and this is why the Republican Party held more than three dozen congressional hearings, calling upon 80 witnesses and costing taxpayers $7 million to investigate why four white US Government employees were killed in a foreign war zone.
If you actually believe that the Republican-controlled Senate and White House will participate in an investigation into what mistakes were made that resulted in the deaths of 100,000 predominantly non-white Americans, then you have seen something in the moral and ethical constitution of what is essentially America’s white power political party that I have not. Neither justice nor care for non-white people is part of their political make-up. One only has to recall how viciously both Trump and GOP leaders attacked and smeared black professional athletes who took a silent knee in protest against race-based police brutality to understand that.
Instead, the political right and the accompanying right-wing media will try to minimise these deaths by peddling false conspiracies that claim the numbers are inflated or attempt to normalise the tragedy by making flawed comparisons to the number killed each year by the seasonal flu, automobile accidents, suicide and whatever.
The two Americas in which whites and non-whites respectively inhabit is also demonstrated in the way police used tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed black people who were protesting the police killing of an innocent black man in Minneapolis on Monday, but stood idly by as heavily armed white anti-lockdown protestors broke social distancing laws and occupied a state building in Michigan last month.
Black and brown bodies represent only a threat or source of entertainment to the white dominant society and thus their wellbeing and welfare is of little concern. And so this current catastrophe – one that could easily have been avoided with competent political management and leadership – has been made worse by longstanding callous and racial indifference.