Racial Fault Lines and the Coronavirus

Along with millions of other Southern Californians, my family and I have been learning to live with the probability in our lifetimes of a mega-quake, a massive earthquake generated not only by sudden movement in the southern sector of the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault, but also possibly triggered and magnified by the countless other faults that crisscross our region.

In many respects, the coronavirus pandemic has been a mega-quake rippling throughout the world, debilitating and killing tens of thousands, inflicting untold damage on economic life and the social fabric of nations, and exposing deep fissures of inequality and injustice across America and throughout the world. In the U.S., the pandemic has underscored the pervasiveness of racism in our society, manifesting like trigger faults in myriad ways and posing formidable barriers to recovery and to the achievement of any semblance of democratic life and culture. All the measures necessary to contain and control the virus must go forward, but they must be guided by an understanding of the racial fractures that pose continuing danger to democracy and to social well-being. Failure to do so will hobble full recovery for many years to come.

With almost 2.3 million people behind bars, the U.S. continues to have the highest number of prisoners in the world, a legacy of several decades of racially propelled policies of harsh sentencing and rapid prison building. We confine this population in what one prison official called “petri dishes” of incubation and infection: sites that lack adequate sanitation, health care, and means of social distancing. It’s no surprise, therefore, that prisons are seeing rapidly increasing rates of infection. Over 14,000 cases and 218 deaths had been reported among individuals incarcerated in state and federal prisons as I was writing this article, and the numbers have undoubtedly grown quickly since then. And in those populations are disproportionate numbers of people of color (African-Americans, for example, are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of whites).

Similar issues face immigration detention facilities, where the vast majority of detained individuals are from Mexico and Central America. Considering these developments in prisons and detention facilities, one notes the insight shared by historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez: “immigration control and mass incarceration emerged as the systems of social control that frame alienated citizens and criminalized immigrants as a racialized caste of outsiders in the United States today.” As the pandemic continues to rage, these systems of social control accentuate the vulnerabilities of the millions of individuals so defined and so framed.

Hernandez and other scholars have commented on the impacts of these systems not only on incarcerated individuals, but also on tens of millions of other people (probationers, parolees, family members, correctional employees, and residents living near prisons), and racism has been a major driver of these impacts. Writing about prisons more than a decade ago, scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore defined racism as, “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

Today, Gilmore’s definition also speaks unerringly to the catastrophic and disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus. According to data current as of April 13, Africans constitute 6 percent of the population in Wisconsin but have accounted for 39 percent of the deaths from the coronavirus. They make up 32 percent of the population in Louisiana but almost 60 percent of the fatalities from the disease. Similar disparities exist in many other states.

Conservative commentators, including Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have sought to put the onus on African-Americans themselves (the Surgeon General recently advised black people to stay clear of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), stressing individual responsibility rather than the complex of social and environmental factors affecting communities of color. By contrast, a substantial body of authoritative medical and public health research underscores not only the disproportionate effects of environmental injustice (e.g. greater exposure to pollution) on these communities but also the adverse health effects of documented racial bias. A 2003 National Academy of Sciences report, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” found racially biased treatment to be pervasive in the American health care system. Subsequent studies continue to affirm the presence of this bias and document its negative medical effects, including what one researcher called the “accelerated aging” associated with stresses generated by racism.

This past January, before the pandemic shut down much of America, scholar Michelle Alexander published a New York Times op-ed that, among other things, examined racial injustice since the publication 10 years ago of her landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander critiqued the continuing pattern of reform, retrenchment, and re-formation of racial castes that has characterized social and political change since emancipation almost 160 years ago. And she assailed the profound denial that continues to thwart genuine racial progress in America. Her title? “The Injustice of This Moment is Not an ‘Aberration’.”

Several months later, with a pandemic raging and a national election just six months away, the urgency of casting out the white nationalist regime in power is more urgent than ever. But such a victory, if it transpires, will be hollow if unaccompanied by a deep, sustained grappling with injustices that have cast their shadows over this country for achingly too long.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.