Commentary

COVID-19 unveils an America that always sees itself in Black and white

New poll finds most Black people believe the government would have taken stronger action if more white people were dying

Of the many divides in America laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, few are as stark as the differences in Black and white. It’s not solely the way the disease has disproportionately sickened Black bodies, imperiled Black workers or wrecked attempts at building Black wealth.

It’s deeper than that.

A survey by The Undefeated and the Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that 66% of Black people say the federal government would be taking stronger action to fight the pandemic if white people were more likely to get sick and die.

Black people say, mostly to one another, that if the face of COVID-19 were more white, every part of the response would look different. There would be more resources for families, more empathy and more urgency in marshaling the national will to keep people safe.

Black people, who are disproportionately employed in jobs considered “essential” and therefore face more exposure to the disease, account for over 20% of the more than 200,000 people killed by the coronavirus, despite being just 13% of the population. Economically, educationally, medically, being Black is a risk factor for all the weary sorrows that make this pandemic worse.

This is why the demands to reopen the economy and the resistance to wearing masks feel personal. Feels like it’s our grandmothers’ lives on the line. Black grandmothers are more likely to work as security guards or home health care aides or cafeteria cooks, and it feels like the people pushing for a maskless reopening don’t much care if they die. The overall chaos and politicization of COVID-19 strengthens Black people’s belief that our government, and sizable numbers of our white countrymen, won’t do their part to stop the disease from spreading because they’re not the ones disproportionately dying.

The Undefeated/KFF survey found that 72% of white people say the federal government’s response would be the same if white people were more likely to fall ill and die.

Toggle the buttons within the charts to filter the poll responses by demographic:

Poll Do you think the federal government would be taking stronger action to fight the pandemic if white people were getting sick and dying at higher rates than people of color?

You a lie! We say in our native tongue, which white people don’t hear unless we want them to. (Long before the coronavirus, we learned to wear the mask.)

COVID-19 has us seeing double. It’s an ability to understand a couple of things happening at the same time that helps keep us sane. It is also an understanding of the myriad ways Black bodies call the question of America.

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois named our double consciousness: “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”

Poll How confident are you that the development of a coronavirus vaccine is taking the needs of Black people into account? (among Black adults)

very confident
somewhat confident
not too confident
not at all confident
no answer

It’s the ability to see yourself, and your place in this nation, both through your own eyes and through the eyes of the white majority. As always, Black people see double everywhere we look. And in this season of death, we’re looking out across the nation.

“Here’s your analogy,” about how the approach to the pandemic would differ if more white people were dying, said poll respondent Fred Buckley III, 59, a military veteran and retired Navy department civil servant from Chula Vista, California. “The crack epidemic required a war on drugs, locking people up, you know, breaking up families.”

But the face of the opioid epidemic has been white. “When you add them into it, it’s a ‘public health crisis,’” Buckley said. “They’re suing billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies. You kill white people, there’s going to be a response. You kill people of color, we’ll get there when we get there. That’s the America we live in, that I fought for for 26 years.”

If the percentages of dead white people “was out of control, way more than anyone else … it would be handled with more urgency.” Miracle Gladney, Tacoma, Washington

“When it’s us, you know, we’re criminals, we’re crooks, lock us up,” said Paul Dickson, 63, another poll respondent who lives in Garfield Heights, Ohio, and was a mill operator for 18 years before retiring as a salesman at an Army Navy store. He also sees the war on drugs as a useful way to understand the racialization of COVID-19. “When it’s them, it’s, ‘Hey, they need help. We need to get them to see doctors, you know, jail ain’t for them,’” said Dickson.

Everything in this country gets treated differently by race, says poll respondent Miracle Gladney, 35, who works in client services for an insurance broker in Tacoma, Washington.

“I can comfortably say that because historically that’s how it always has been,” Gladney said.

White children know that it is better to be them than it is to be us, says Gladney. “Why else would that be, besides the fact that everything is handled differently?”

If the percentages of dead white people “was out of control, way more than anyone else … it would be handled with more urgency,” Gladney said. “That’s how it has been. It’s still that way today. I don’t know why [reaction to the coronavirus] would be any different.”

It’s not something anybody wishes for, it just is what it is.

She cites the fact that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth, and how even now there are white doctors who believe Black patients feel less pain. (That false belief and others about race and addiction led white doctors who overprescribed to white patients to give fewer pain relievers to Black patients, so fewer of them died of prescription opioid overdoses.)

Others cite white gunmen such as Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse who get arrested without incident, while police shoot Black children such as Tamir Rice playing with toy guns at parks. Or what would have happened if a young white first responder was killed in her apartment in a hail of bullets by a group of police officers executing a no-knock warrant? It’s an exercise in duality that Black people sometimes do.

What if you do that same kind of swap with a deadly public health crisis, but make the essential workers white men? For the 72% of white people who say there would be no difference in the pandemic response if the racial dynamics were different, James Baldwin has already told you:

We can’t believe what you say because we see what you do.

Poll How confident are you that when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, it will be distributed in a way that is fair?

very confident
somewhat confident
not too confident
not at all confident

The governor of Georgia, who rushed to reopen the state’s economy in April, sued the mayor of majority-Black Atlanta over a city ordinance requiring face masks enacted according to guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Once it became clear that the disease was having a disproportionate impact on people of color, that workforce became expendable,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They’re the ones who need to continue going to work to keep the economy going, right? Because there’s this concern about the economy stopping, but their health is not the concern.”

So the narrative becomes the delivery person, the trash collector, the grocery store clerk are all heroes. But they’re not treated like heroes or given the best personal protective equipment, says Todd-Breland. They’re not making that hero money. There’s a two-facedness to it all that Black people see clearly.

Some say these dualities constitute two Americas. But there are not two Americas so much as there are two versions of the same America. Black people know it to be a place where every depredation is true, alongside every soaring possibility. Two renditions of the same song but with different arrangements, different ideas about who plays it best and which notes should be struck emphatically.

Frederick Douglass used the nation’s flawed founding documents to challenge white men “to have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.” To be the country they told themselves they were in their origin story of nationhood.

What are you going to do with the enslaved? What are you going to do with the emancipated? Who gets extended the protections of citizenship? Who gets to vote? The presence of Black bodies has raised those questions every day in the life of this nation and made them urgent in the face of our ideals.

Black bodies represent “a constant rebuttal to the idea that there are these highly-held values, because Black people have never been treated as though that were actually the case,” said Todd-Breland.

“Once it became clear that the disease was having a disproportionate impact on people of color, that workforce became expendable.” Elizabeth Todd-Breland, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago

There are layers and parallels and double thoughts throughout our history. If it is true that democracy is premised on a fundamental agreement about equal justice and protection, it is also true that has never been true for us. And everybody knows it.

Look at the videos of police killing Black people, so numerous they comprise their own canon. Look at Black people of every age made vulnerable to the coronavirus by decades of indifference and racism.

Throughout history, it is the Black body that compels the nation to recognize when something must change. But it is unclear how much change in health care, in education, in housing, jobs or criminal justice will come from this moment. Black people have often planted trees they never see flower.

Sometimes our double vision gives us clarity, even in the midst of a pandemic. We seek a version of America that either lives up to its founding ideals or that lifts every voice to reimagine something better. And that’s an America where we’re not dying.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.