Whether the White House wants to acknowledge it or not, the United States is a nation in trauma. With over 143,000 Americans dead due to the new coronavirus pandemic, we are experiencing wartime-like death. That, in turn, will lead to almost-ubiquitous post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Black Americans understand death and trauma well. In America, our lives and our safety are under incessant threat.
As a child, my mother always told me that her number-one fear was being wrongfully imprisoned for a crime that she did not commit. Now, I understand that her fear highlighted the ways in which the carceral state is built upon the criminalization of the Black body. To be Black in America is to be constantly aware of your position of vulnerability. Conversely, white lives in America are systemically protected.
The U.S. is inextricably linked to white identity—and whiteness is built upon the belief of impenetrability. White people believe that nothing can touch them, because they created a nation that inculcates their supremacy and protects their humanity. Brought face to face with their mortality in new and unsettling ways by way of COVID-19, white Americans continue to try to distance themselves from the reality of life during this pandemic. From anti–stay-at-home protests to adamant declarations of anti-mask and anti–social-distancing sentiments, many white Americans are attempting to deny the existence of the pandemic altogether.
I believe white Americans are struggling deeply with this pandemic because, since the inception of our government, our sociopolitical structure privileged white life as a central American value. Slavery quite literally served as a system that cast the burden of building a country upon Black bodies. Building a nation is back-breaking work. It is work that will kill you. Instead of bearing the brunt of that work, white people enslaved Black people. Our labor, pain, and death crafted a reality wherein America is a Janus-faced paradise. By way of chattel slavery, America became a promised land of white prosperity and a nightmare of Black torture. White Americans are insulated from the fear of mortality because we die for them. They break our bodies and then declare that whiteness is exceptionally resilient. White resilience is directly related to the disposability of Black bodies.
Of course, not all white Americans are rejecting the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. But I am not exploring whiteness as individualistic; I am unpacking whiteness as an American value of supremacy. As Cheryl Harris asserts in her acclaimed 2006 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” whiteness constitutes unique access to social power, government resources, cultural acceptance, and economic mobility. If whiteness is under threat, then America is under threat. From March to April, the government attempted to (ever so briefly) take the new coronavirus seriously. For a fleeting moment, the coronavirus pandemic proved to be a threat to the American narrative of national exceptionalism, or the belief that in a global context, the U.S. reigns supreme. This is because white death works against America’s national identity. If white Americans died en masse, how could America remain a paragon of white safety and divine providence?
If white people died en masse, it would serve to undo the very fabric of the United States. If the U.S. is to continue to be a white promised land of divine favor, then white people must live, or America is a lie. As such, the country’s initial shutdown served to protect white Americans from the brutal first wave of the pandemic.
But in May, as it became clearer and clearer that Black people were the most vulnerable to the pandemic, white Americans began revolting, and the federal government began pushing for a reopening of the economy. And while some may argue that this is good for Black Americans, due to high pandemic unemployment rates, we are also the highest number of essential workers. Thus, even as the economy reopens, our lives are severely at risk. That is the paradox: Unemployed Black Americans are at risk due to a lack of health care access, and many employed Black Americans are at risk due to heightened coronavirus exposure. Even our employment is killing us. This is because in an anti-Black capitalist society, Black and Brown people will always be pushed into the jobs that are highest risk, even in the absence of a pandemic. Coupled with the number of Black people who are incarcerated or houseless, the Black community is tragically exposed to COVID-19 with little to no systemic protection. This is referred to as social determinants of health, a term that denotes the truth that where people live, work, attend school, and more impacts their overall risk exposure and lifespan. The United States of America is built upon policies, laws, and de facto and de jure structures that contort Black bodies into shields that insulate white people from the reality of their humanity. White invincibility is predicated upon Black death. America is because Black people die.
When discussing Black death as a foundation of America’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic structure, I often receive pushback by way of citing the Civil War. I want to pause here in order to briefly acknowledge that the Civil War may be used to refute my analysis. More than 620,000 Americans, many of them white, died in the Civil War. Yet the Civil War resulted from discord of white America’s own making. White America’s commitment to Black dehumanization led to massive casualties. It is also worth noting that while white Americans created a system that privileges their humanity, the Civil War demonstrates that white Americans are willing to lay down their life for their own supremacy. White Americans oftentimes are willing to die for the American project, because this perpetuates a system of supremacy that will benefit their families for generations to come. And though I appreciate that many white Americans also died to end enslavement, I understand the Civil War as an economic dispute, not a moral crusade. Black Codes quickly followed emancipation, demonstrating that the Civil War was not a project of dismantling anti-Blackness but a battle for America’s economic structure. As America mutates, so too do the frameworks of Black subjugation.
In America, Black communities are always disproportionately vulnerable to mass illness and death. HIV is an epidemic within the Black gay community. While HIV rates have declined among gay white men, Black gay men haven’t seen the same decreases, mostly due to many intersecting modalities of disenfranchisement. In fact, in 2018, though Black people comprise 13% of the population, we accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States. Further, Black people make up 34% of the correctional population, and we are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans. Moreover, Black people constitute 40% of the houseless population in the U.S. Thus, for the Black community, COVID-19 is emblematic of the ways in which pain and death in our community are always ignored. We are exponentially more susceptible to the new coronavirus, because the government both villainizes and abandons our communities. We are surveilled and despised. We are monitored, yet uncared for. This abandonment is purposeful. Our disenfranchisement protects white communities from dealing with the realities of capitalism, a brutal system steeped in white supremacy but spun into a myth of meritocracy. White communities understand themselves to be at the top due to hard work and determination, but in actuality the subjugation of the Black community protects white people from contending with the truth of our society. Our bodies and communities are buffers between whiteness and the world.
The coronavirus pandemic is federally sanctioned genocide against the Black community. We are dying at astronomical numbers. Our bodies are disposable because our death serves to save white people from a similar fate. As essential workers, Black people are conduits for white people to have the experiences that they desire while remaining relatively safe. We are exposed so that white people are not inconvenienced. We die so that the American project of white invincibility stays intact. A closed America works against white national identity, because America understands itself as divinely favored and also deeply masculine.
Americans refuse to “succumb” to the virus. They refuse to be understood as weak. However, an open America also works against America’s national identity because white casualties disrupt white people’s understanding of their privilege. White people built a nation invested in their immortality. And so, America’s national identity is upheld by our dehumanization and our death. Black people are left to die so that the American dream can continue to thrive. White America’s dream is Black America’s nightmare. It’s time for a wake-up call.