The Mistake of Race in the Pandemic

DSC01108When we moved back to Atlanta in 1961 after most of a decade in Ohio and Indiana, I noticed a racial divide that bothered me then and has bothered me ever since. Suddenly, all of the people doing household and service chores were black. There were no white landscapers and many more of our neighbors had maids and people helping around the house than had been the case in Indiana—and all of the “help” was black. Living out near Decatur, the only African Americans I would see were people who arrived in the morning to help white folks.

So stark was the contrast that, thirty years later, when I moved to New York City soon after returning from four years in Africa, I shuddered to see blacks pushing strollers filled with white children. When I would bring this up to white friends, they would look at me strangely. The New York “help,” they told me, came in all colors. Plus, the local people of African ancestry generally came from the Caribbean and had come here to better themselves. They were not stuck in these roles but were buying time for children and grandchildren who would never be consigned to such a life. I could not argue; the new Urbania whites had not seen what I had and, besides, weren’t willing to do the work themselves and could afford to hire others. And that those “others” tended to be people of color didn’t bother them. Plus, couldn’t I see discriminating against people because of their race if I didn’t hire them?

But it bothered me, still does, to see white children pushed by black nannies. After all, I knew, you never saw it the other way around.

In the growing American Urbania, we have plenty of excuses for accepting racial divides. The middle class here is not completely white, as it was in Atlanta when I was a child. There are plenty of American Americans and other people of color with the means for hiring “help” today and Urbania whites tend to have at least a sprinkling of Asians, South Americans and African Americans in their social circles.

This class does exist, however, on a vast network of predominately non-whites who do the menial work around them.

There was no excuse for it in Atlanta in 1961; there is no excuse for it now. And we are living with its consequences as Urbania relies on people of color to get it through the current pandamic.

When it began to become apparent that African Americans and the other poorer demographics in Urbania when being harder hit than the whites and the richer people of color they served, the first thing I heard was that this diffence was the result of the worse health of the poor. It was only grudgingly, in seemed to me, that “people” (that is, the wealthy who write for the media) began to realize that this was happening because of the jobs so many could not give up. The luxury of self-isolating did not belong to them.

What I worried about when I first heard these statistics was that it would not be the reality of employment that would be seized upon by the white residents of those parts of Ruralia yet to experience the crisis. To rationalize a vision of the novel coronavirus pandemic that did not include them, they would take up a vision that would quickly take the form of the pandemic is one of “them,” not “us.” They would come to believe that they were being asking to sacrifice for Urbania due to something that would never have an impact on them. They would come to resent and resist—just as some of them have.

A part of Ruralia doesn’t seem to recognize that race has nothing to do with the situation—just as my white Urbania compatriots did not when I told them I was queasy about the racial divides of our modern society. No one, in either place, wants to admit our racial failings. The COVID-19 split is forcing New Yorkers, at least, to face what is happening—while allowing Ruralia to push aside the danger to themselves. The reasons for the spread of the virus in New York are demographic. We are one of the most densely packed areas of the country and are much more of a hub than anywhere else in the country. We also have a greater racial divide than much of Ruralia because, quite frankly, American minorities are more concentrated in Urbania.

Urbania has felt more of the brunt of the pandemic so far—but that doesn’t mean it won’t hit other places. It is affecting African American harder now not because of their race but because of their jobs. In places where there are fewer minorities, more whites do those same jobs. Once the virus gets a foothold in Ruralia, as it will, it is going to spread through the retail workers, the landscapers, the restaurant workers—the service workers who are more heavily white there than they are in Urbania. It is not going to spread as quickly but spread it will.

We have long used race to insulate and isolate ourselves, both in Urbania and in Ruralia. “We” being the favored white population in both areas. We have never been willing to see how lucky we are. But a virus doesn’t care about race and is going to spread, perhaps more slowly among those with the privilege of sheltering from it, but spread it will. Maybe we in Urbania have slowed it enough so that our health-care machinery can handle it, but that 70% who are going to get it still will. The privileged are only privileged in being able to put it off.

In Urbania the spread is being delayed right now just as it will in Ruralia over the next few months.

We are not done with this pandamic, not by a long shot. Not in Urbania where we have felt it had. Not in Ruralia where it is still coming.

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