The Unbearable Black Light of Being: COVID-19, Caste and History
You’ve seen the result; take an ultraviolet black light to a surface in a hotel room and all is revealed. Gross. COVID-19 is an ultraviolet black light for the USA. I’m classified as an African American senior citizen and the mask is problematic. I have a Black code, a key to survival. I have to put white people at ease, let them know I’m not a threat. Make no sudden movements, do not speak loudly and by all means, make sure your hands are out of your pockets. With the masks, you can’t see my smile and suddenly in the time of COVID-19, not only am I Black, I’m also seen as one of “those” people with a high transmission rate.
When I stepped off the building elevator in late March, my neighbor saw me and gasped. My cheery “good morning” did nothing to change the terrified look. With the mask and my hair pulled back, all my fellow building resident saw was a lanky Black figure coming toward her. The good thing about a mask: it captures your tears as your soul breaks.
While most people have to remember their mask, I have to think about what I look like when I walk out my door. Do I look like a threat? In 2019, Anjanette Young was handcuffed naked in her home by police who raided the wrong address. In 2019, police on a wellness check killed Atatiana Jefferson. This year, police killed Breonna Taylor; they were at the wrong address. I was stopped by police as I was getting my mail when I owned a home in the suburbs. The odds of a successful encounter with law enforcement are not in my favor; as my parents taught me, approach with caution. The mask leaves me handicapped. So what, I wear it.
In May, the world watched an American policeman with his knee on the throat of a Black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with cell phones filming, people screaming and a man pleading, “I can’t breathe”. In June, we masked up, headed out and demonstrated against racial injustice. It was maddening to hear some claims that the murder was a hoax.
Science tells the virus is airborne and data shows an ‘accelerated’ death rate. Yet, there are people who refuse to wear masks and protest. They believe COVID-19 is a hoax and the mandates are an infringement of their rights.
The construct of “us versus them” is literally killing us. There is this illogical push to make everything a sound bite or a catchphrase to the detriment of critical thinking. It is not all black and white, it is nuanced shades of grey.
A friend in frustration commented, “If people could just see the suffering in the hospitals, the rapidly rising death toll, the overwhelmed medical staff, and the deaths, people would take it seriously.” However, we’re a nation that has shown a remarkable ability to ignore logic and selfishly consider our own interests. This is the nation that considered my ancestors 3/5 of a human being, sold us like cattle, branded us like livestock, beat us and meted out all manner of cruelty with a loss of a moral compass that would see humanity in all people. “The first slave ship arrived in 1619, the Civil War ended in 1865. Slavery has gone on for centuries.
During his famous debates with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln explained to the crowd: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
In the context of Lincoln’s statement, the USA is working as designed. I have the uncomfortable position of interacting with a percentage of people on a daily basis who view me as less than them. Stress. I am extra cautious with regard to COVID-19 because I will be immediately discounted as, “She’s in the high risk group.” Stress. Sadly, the masks and belief in the virus is politicized and that is just what we do. As a country we’ve never settled the Civil War. It was politicized between North and South. Much like the argument that we must get back to work because of the economy. Economy was a factor for the Civil War; we have to have slaves because of the economy. Like the Civil War, where slave owners were paid reparations for loss of slaves (yes, that happened) we have bail out and aid packages that help big business more than the small business and everyday people impacted. Ahhhhh, but we missed the nuanced difference between inconvenienced and devastated.
People are tired. Yes, we all are. But do we really know tired? In context, people gloss over the Rosa Parks story; she was tired, didn’t sit in the back of the bus and segregation ended. Nah, the bus boycott went on for over a year; 40,000 negroes walked an average of 8 miles a day while the case made its way to the supreme court. Over a year with no guarantee of anything would change. It was a community, for the good of all. You know there were times when the last thing anyone wanted to do was walk in the cold driving rain, but they stuck to it. So, to hear people complaining about wearing a mask, an infringement of rights, oh please, try being black.
In the 60’s, we weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants, we could only do take out. To watch people, complain now, is akin to watching a 3-year-old throw a temper tantrum, righteously indignant ignorance and entitlement. Over the weekend, the press reported “anti-lockdown protests” in Salem, Oregon in which armed participants destroyed fencing and broke glass doors at the building in which the state legislature meets. Why? They object to lock down orders and a COVID-19 relief bill. The George Floyd protests were 93% peaceful, those with mayhem were typically by outside influence, yet these were called riots. We need law and order; call in the National Guard. We have the footage of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old elderly white man pushed to the ground. Stunned because we know if police can be filmed pushing old white men without just cause, we are in trouble.
Seeing and reading several retrospectives on the year in review, the big stories are the pandemic, the election, in California the wildfires, and this thing called “civil unrest.” What happened to protest against systematic racisms? That’s what we do, detonate any inflammatory language, make things palatable. The same with COVID-19, it’s a “flu.” Nothing to worry about, people die from the flu all the time; nothing to take responsibility for. We didn’t do it, the flu didn’t start here, we don’t have to change our lives. This rhetoric means we as a country cannot even acknowledge the issue, let alone begin to address it. I love this description that applies to both the issue of race in America and the pandemic.
We in the “developed” world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.
– Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents
For racial justice and COVID-19, may we not lock the door and for some other generation to face what’s in the basement, our basement. Let’s move ahead and lead with our black ultraviolet light for good.