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The US’s Failed Response to the Pandemic Is Rooted in Anti-Blackness

The pandemic is showing us how racism impairs our ability to respond, hurting all of us.

People pick up food for distribution by The Campaign Against Hunger amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. This neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city and one of the hardest hit by the epidemic.

Part of the Series

With the speed of lightning, the coronavirus crisis is waking all of the U.S. up to a reality most Black people have known for decades — our country fails the most marginalized. Our systems were ill-prepared to help everyday people sans pandemic. Now in the midst of one, the sun is shining down on their cavernous cracks created by deep-seated anti-Blackness. The reality is we are a country built on a racist house of cards, and the pandemic is showing us how racism — specifically anti-Blackness — impairs our ability to respond, hurting all of us.

Anti-Blackness — the dehumanization, subjugation and lack of concern for Black people — exists in the makings of our neoliberal economy and almost every facet of U.S. politics. While most would concede that anti-Blackness existed in our history, many cannot see the continuation of anti-Blackness today. Coronavirus is making it very clear that entrenched inequities have a lot to do with anti-Black racism as data sets continue to show that Black people are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at shockingly high rates. We shouldn’t gloss over this fact or chalk it up to individual behavior of Black people. We should continue to advocate for disaggregated data on COVID-19 and dig deep to understand why this is happening. The answer holds the key to our collective well-being.

There has been a continued effort to deny Black people access to health care, which in turn impacts all people. For example, there is a shortage of hospitals across the country, particularly in rural communities and the South. These closures are due in part to the fact that the governments of many of the Confederate states refused to expand Medicare after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, due to anti-Black racism.

Let’s also look at the industries and job sectors that have been hit the hardest during the crisis. The service sector, where 30 percent of Black women are employed, has been macerated by COVID-19. We also know domestic and agricultural workers — two sectors that Black women were pushed into historically — are front-line essential workers with little to no protections or benefits like paid leave, retirement benefits or hazard pay. Now all people working in these professions who are mostly immigrant, Latinx and low-income are reeling from the effects of the pandemic by either being one of the 22 million people that have lost their jobs, or are continuing to work under super hazardous conditions. This is connected to the fact that due to anti-Blackness, domestic and agricultural work has a history of being sidelined in policies that offer worker protection and benefits. For example, the Social Security Act, passed as part of the New Deal, excluded these two professions at a time when 65 percent of Black people were domestic or agricultural workers. This legacy lives on as undocumented workers – many of whom are Black — make up a large part of our agricultural workforce now, and have been excluded from federal COVID-19 relief. Domestic, agricultural and service work – industries heavily dominated by Black and Brown women — continue to be the lowest paid and undervalued, making it so the impact of coronavirus is hitting these workers especially hard.

The reality is, anti-Blackness hurts us all, particularly those who live at the margins of our economy — other communities of color and low-income people. These people are desperately trying to comprehend how they could be worried about putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads while living in one of the richest countries in the world. Make no mistake, they are feeling the impacts of anti-Blackness.

It is because of anti-Blackness that the industries with the largest proportions of Black women are the most precarious at this moment. It is because of anti-Blackness that we purposefully reduced our welfare system into a paternalistic, dignity-stripping program due to the false, racialized myth of the “welfare queen,” cementing the visual of a Black woman as the face of poverty. U.S. society generally has easily accepted this myth because many fundamentally struggle to believe Black women deserve their concern, care and empathy.

Policy makers have made countless decisions to divest from public assistance programs because they believe that poor people don’t deserve help or government intervention — a narrative that stems from anti-Blackness. These leaders say its people’s choices and poor decisions that lead them to struggle in the first place. They explain away persistent racial and gender wealth inequality to individual behavior, rather than focusing on systemic racism. This is how the U.S. collectively reconciles the fact that poverty and homelessness exist in the country — it must be the fault of individuals, not our systems, and therefore there is no reason for government intervention. Just pull yourself up from your own bootstraps! So now, when it is increasingly clear that what people need most is a direct, sustained, non-restricted cash benefit, Congress fails to pass or collectively imagine much more than a single $1,200 check as a relief measure.

The U.S. has made profit our god and people expendable because labor is associated with Blackness, a connection ignited by our history of enslaving Black people to do hard labor. Some of us have deluded ourselves into believing that transformational, systemic change is the boogieman because we associate Black people with the face of poverty and suffering. It’s easier to blame others for their plight rather than take any kind of responsibility for it by understanding how anti-Blackness specifically continues to hurt not only Black people — which should be enough — but also anyone who ever finds themselves in a place where they are in need. Now that millions more Americans are experiencing that, we’re sitting around wondering: Where is the infrastructure to help us? Why is my government’s response so deeply inadequate? Our ability to respond to a pandemic has been eroded because of anti-Blackness.

The COVID-19 crisis should force the U.S. to take a good long look in the mirror and do some hard self-reflection. What we choose to see will lay the foundation for what we choose to build moving forward. The U.S. was founded on racism, creating an inequitable economy and dysfunctional social safety net. Moving forward, we must do the exact opposite by centering Black people and other marginalized groups. Centering Black women in particular is what our North Star should be as we repeatedly call on them to save our democracy, yet invest so little in their well-being and power. It is time to reveal, reckon and repair to build something better for everyone.

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