|By Edward Luce
May 29, 2020 “Information Clearing House” – – Imagine a group of black men in paramilitary gear with semi-automatic rifles moving towards a US state capitol building. Their chances of reaching the steps without a police stand-off — or worse — would be tiny. Yet every few days white protesters do just that. They often enter the building armed but unchallenged. Nothing brings into sharper relief America’s colour disparities than life and death in the great lockdown.
The coronavirus outbreak is exacerbating them. There are two sides to the Jim Crow-like reality of America’s pandemic. The first is your chance of dying. In Michigan, where armed protesters gather weekly in the state capital Lansing, African Americans account for 40 per cent of coronavirus deaths but only 13.6 per cent of its population. There is no disaggregation of national race statistics. But the states worst-hit by the virus — New York, Georgia, Louisiana and New Jersey — have similar disparities.
Much of it reflects divisions of labour. Black and Hispanic Americans are far likelier to work in essential jobs than whites. Every day a trickle of service people pass my door in Washington DC — trash collectors, delivery people and postal workers. Eight out of 10 are black. The others are Hispanic. They are also more likely to live in cities. Majority white Louisiana’s deaths largely come from mostly black New Orleans. The same for Michigan and Detroit. Or Georgia and Atlanta. It also reflects poverty, because African-Americans and Hispanics are likelier to be poor, and they are more prone to “comorbidities” such as diabetes and hypertension, which makes them more susceptible to the virus.
The other concentrated sites of US outbreaks are meat processing plants in states such as Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The large majority of their workers are Hispanic. Polls show that about two-thirds of Americans do not want the lockdown to end before scientists say it is safe. Of the remaining third who want to reopen now, 5 per cent are black Americans who have lost their jobs. Seventy per cent are white Americans who are still employed. That division tells a thousand tales. The headline is that non-whites feel the pathogen’s threat far more viscerally than whites.
The second racial dimension to America’s pandemic is how social distancing is policed. In Brooklyn 35 of 40 people arrested for violating social distancing rules in the past six weeks were non-white. In Toledo, Ohio, according to ProPublica, 18 out of 23 arrests were of black violators. Citations include breaking the six-feet distancing rule and travelling on a bus for non-essential reasons. The penalty in Ohio for breaching social distancing rules is 90 days in jail — another Petri dish of viral infections. America’s federal prisons and county jails are the stationary counterparts to quarantined cruise ships.Each group also listens to Donald Trump differently. When Mr Trump urges militia-style demonstrators to “liberate” Michigan, African Americans hear that their lives matter less than removing the inconvenience to others. Almost none of the protesters wear face masks. Like Mr Trump, they see it as an effete marker of overreaction. They are not alone. Elon Musk, the Californian super-entrepreneur, this week defied county orders to keep his Tesla plant shuttered.
The good news is that most Americans want to follow sensible guidelines. No matter how loudly a minority pressures states to open up, most people only want to mingle if they feel safe. The bad news is that many Americans cannot afford to stay at home after the federal government’s cheques stop. Washington’s enhanced unemployment insurance expires in two months. The US Treasury’s $1,200 payment to American families was a one-off. The return of politics-as-normal in the US Congress means any new fiscal relief bill looks unlikely.
The subtext to America’s reopening battle is thus racial. The danger is that Mr Trump’s re-election campaign will do away with the subtext. In the past few days, Mr Trump has resurrected Barack Obama as a punch bag. Mr Obama was to blame for America’s lockdown because he did not develop a vaccine, Mr Trump said. He accused his predecessor of the “worst crimes in US history”. Pressed on what those were, Mr Trump could only say: “You know what the crime is.” On one level, nobody has much idea which laws Mr Obama is alleged to have broken. But there is another law — a code of politics — that offers a clearer answer: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” What people hear Mr Trump say is conditioned by who they are. Here, too, Covid-19 is sharpening the racial gap.
Land of the Free and Other Bull*hit