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Photo: Saul B. Foster

Vectors of vulnerability

As an enemy far too small to see, the coronavirus has been personified in our current historical moment and the working class has become its face. Alongside fair, reasonable criticisms of policymakers, some pundits, politicians, and social media personalities have taken aim at poor citizens, circulating coronavirus-themed stories of poor people in Wal-Marts with jerry-rigged homemade personal protective equipment, working-class hoarders swiping toilet paper from the hotels they service, and politicians lecturing poor communities of color about taking the crisis seriously. TikTok, Snapchat, and Facebook have transmitted myriad videos of white New Yorkers in highrise apartments berating people on the street, ordering them to go home and stay inside. And in the wake of protests against COVID-19 lockdown orders nationwide, the term “#pennsyltucky” began trending with derogatory intent. One Twitter user expressed the disgust embedded in this hashtag thusly: “Thank you doctors, nurses and all others putting their lives on the line while these #redneck #deplorables #pennsyltucky #Whitetrash display their ignorant selfish ways.”

These varied and pervasive images work to paint the working class as a contagion—the prime agents of the coronavirus rather than its principal victims. Poor people of color and poor whites are viewed differently in the COVID media landscape, but both are nonetheless depicted in ways that reveal a class politics of whiteness. The idea that poor and working-class people (and those coded as such) serve as the main vectors of coronavirus conceals corporate and political interests as the true agents of public risk and suffering. Such notions take the healthy “national body” as a middle-class white body threatened by diseased poor and working-class people. Only through the extraction of certain pollutants can the national body be fully restored.

People of Color as Vectors or Heroic Victims

The coronavirus disproportionately threatens poor and working-class communities of color. Rather than recognizing this fact as a consequence of structural inequalities related to intergenerational wealth, health care, housing, and education, prevailing narratives surrounding the coronavirus tend to venerate, pity, or blame the poor and working class.

As of April 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Black people represent 34 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases, while comprising only 13 percent of the U.S. population. (The CDC also admitted that data are still limited). In many large urban areas, the proportion of Black victims is even higher. In Chicago, Black people make up 67 percent of deaths, while in New Orleans they make up 70 percent. As Khushbu Shah (a Michigander) points out, the health disparities that have long plagued Detroit’s poor communities of color—the result of redlining, segregation, white flight, water shutoffs, and a lack of health care—have enabled the coronavirus to run rampant. Poor and working-class people of color are also acutely susceptible to incarceration and homelessness—a particularly frightening prospect during this precarious moment when COVID-19 is ravaging people in jails and prisons and those experiencing houselessness. By pitying coronavirus victims, the narratives that have thus far defined the pandemic decenter the racial and class disparities engendered by racial capitalism and one of its core components:the predatory, for-profit health care system. Depicting COVID-19 as “the great equalizer”—as Governor Andrew Cuomo (D–NY) and Madonna have called it—allows members of the middle and ruling classes to don the cloak of victimhood and vulnerability while denying responsibility for fostering the inequalities that help insulate them from the disease.

In addition to the victim narrative, an alternative narrative has emerged that celebrates frontline workers of color performing their jobs in difficult conditions. According to a report released by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, 70 percent of the city’s essential workers are Black, Hispanic, and Asian. Sixty percent of people in cleaning services are Hispanic, while 40 percent of transit workers are Black. According to Amazon, its employees are 15.4 percent Asian, 26.5 percent Black/African American, and 18.5 percent Hispanic.

As benign as these hero narratives might appear at first blush, they can normalize the exploitation of these workforces in the face of a crisis, seemingly mandating sacrifice in order to maintain some semblance of (white) middle-class normalcy. Dahlia Lithwick, for one, has described the harms of venerating nurses as heroes. This narrative flourish not only routinizes the risks that nurses and other frontline workers must incur; it treats the coronavirus like a special wartime sacrifice, drawing attention away from the chronic underfunding, union busting, and health disparities that many workers confronted before COVID-19. Certainly, these laborers deserve recognition and praise, but they also deserve agency and respect. Celebrating heroic individuals in a pandemic can often obscure the dismal conditions in which they toil and against which they’ve long mobilized. Amazon, for example—with the help of Obama administration alum Jay Carney, now an Amazon executive—has employed racist tactics to smear union activists in its ranks and implemented elaborate systems for stymying potential unionization efforts at Whole Foods locations.

Communities of color have also been blamed for the spread of the virus. Asian communities and immigrants have been subjected to vicious hate crimes resulting from the belief that they carry the virus. Even though over 50 percent of frontline workers are foreign-born, they have been repeatedly blamed for the spread of coronavirus and many undocumented workers have been denied the economic stimulus benefits that citizens received. Donald Trump has used the pandemic as a pretext to advance draconian immigration restrictions. The demonization of Chinese and Asian immigrants has not simply been a tactic utilized by right-wing political pundits and policymakers, however. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stoked xenophobic sentiment in a venomous recent campaign ad, which advocates for CDC intervention in China and takes aim at Trump for his supposedly soft approach to immigration and travel. “Trump let in 40,000 travelers from China into America after he signed [the travel ban]. Not exactly airtight,” the ad’s voiceover declares. “Look around, 22 million Americans are out of work.”

Black communities have incurred scorn and scrutiny for their supposedly ignorant approach to the virus—a myth Ibram X. Kendi has thoroughly debunked. Congressional representative Marc Veasey (D–TX) called out African Americans for a “lackadaisical approach to social distancing.” The L.A. Sentinel insisted that Black people failed to adequately maintain social distancing due to the belief that Black people are immune from the virus. Kendi writes: “Where’s the evidence that this was widely believed by Black people? Where’s the evidence that it caused Black people to not take the virus as seriously as other groups did?” And, finally, Surgeon General Jerome Adams took a lot of flack for imploring communities of color to practice social distancing “for your Big Mama”: “We need you to understand—especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.”

Ultimately, depictions of working-class people of color in the age of COVID-19 tend to evoke sympathy for victims, praise for their public service, or racist demonization. Praise and sympathy may seem like antidotes to racist depictions, since they lift up people as heroes or acknowledge them as martyrs. But both work to isolate the coronavirus as a one-of-a-kind tragedy, while masking the structural inequalities that guarantee racially disparate health outcomes. Presenting working-class communities of color as heroes offers a patronizing vision that imagines this system of exploitation as a necessary sacrifice during an aberrant moment in history—rather than as an engine of U.S. racial capitalism. Thus, praise and sympathy work together with pity and blame to naturalize COVID-19’s place within poor and working-class communities of color.

Poor Whites as Anti-Lockdown Protestors

Poor whites have occupied a different position in the public consciousness during the pandemic. While they sometimes evoke the kinds of pity or sacrificial-lamb language detailed above, they have also become the face of anti-lockdown protests. The class-based disgust aroused by these protestors is manifest in the following Twitter user’s post: “You inbred, hillbilly, rebel flag toting, moonshine swilling, gun drawing, sister f*cking, redneck, low iq, three engines on your lawn, inflatable pool swimming, homemade cigarette smoking, assf*cks. Not very bright, are you? Asking for people with a brain.”

The grotesqueries of these protests have saturated the news media—angry white people brandishing swastikas, anti-Semitic drawings, and reappropriated feminist slogans like “My Body, My Choice” in reference to protective masks. The brazen nature of these hateful protests lays bare the racism and xenophobia energized by Trumpism. But as news outlets have now reported, many of these anti-quarantine demonstrations grew from the machinations of well-funded right-wing political groups, such as FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, and a far-right pro-gun group called Minnesota Gun Rights. According to the Washington Post, the latter catalyzed protests via Facebook after creating a series of pages titled “Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine,” “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine,” and so on for Wisconsin and New York. While the recent protests might have the look of a grassroots reactionary cultural movement, many have been spurred by behind-the-scenes corporate and political interests.

The crassness of these displays aside, certain ugly responses to such protests reveal the potency of intraracialmudsill politicking—through which the nation’s social and political “betters” disparage and therefore distinguish themselves from the unkempt white masses. This political tradition has a deep and sordid history in the United States. Poor and working-class whites—or those imagined as such through their “deficient” culture—have long represented a vexing and perhaps existential threat to the value of whiteness, which has conferred innumerable privileges across centuries. From the assumption of freedom during the eras of racialized chattel slavery and Jim Crow to the assumption of “law-abiding” citizenship and belonging during the eras of racialized mass incarceration and deportation, the perquisites of whiteness abound.

While white Americans still regularly channel Daniel Patrick Moynihan to blame people of color for their poverty and plight, deeply ingrained understandings of racial difference (shored up through residential and school segregation, wealth inequality, and mass incarceration) ensure considerable physical and cultural distance between white and nonwhite Americans. That racial hierarchy, despite myriad valiant and successful challenges mounted against it, unfortunately remains firmly entrenched. Those with possessive investment in whiteness remain vigilant in their defense of that deep-seated racial order, and their methods are well-known and widely deployed—demagoguery, violence, hyperpolicing, voter suppression, and redlining, among others. As Edward Snowden warns, an economic downturn and heightened fears about a recurring pandemic threaten to ramp up surveillance—which, as Simone Browne has demonstrated, often presents racial policing as a mere race-neutral safety measure.

Downtrodden and/or downwardly mobile whites present a pricklier problem for those committed to maintaining white privilege and white supremacy. Because the white bourgeoisie belong within the same racial category as poor and working-class whites, they must distinguish themselves along class, behavioral, and “cultural” lines. Such maneuvers rely upon regionally inflected and politically freighted character types such as the “hillbilly” or the “redneck.” “For over a century,” historian Bob Hutton notes, the trope of the “hillbilly has been used liberally but has likely never beenapplied to a nonwhite person. It not only denotes whiteness, but also implicitly acknowledges an intra-racial hierarchy (in which, it goes without saying, hillbillies are on the bottom, thanks to their rejection of bourgeois modes of behavior) within it.”

In many ways, Trump’s shocking electoral victory in 2016 intensified white bourgeois resentment toward the amorphous “white working class,” a grouping many commentators claimed swung the contest in Trump’s favor. But—far from a “movement” that mobilized disillusioned poor working whites—Trump’s campaign actually succeeded because of the white suburbanites who comprise the core of the Republican Party’s base. (Trump performed better with this constituency than did the far more genteel Mitt Romney four years earlier.) Though hardly kingmakers, white voters in places like Kentucky and West Virginia became the subjects of countless news media profiles following the 2016 election, as historian Elizabeth Catte has illustrated. These pieces seemed to suggest that the white ruling class simply could not be responsible for catapulting a white nationalist brute to the White House, even though Trump came from and in many ways caters to the Eastern Establishment.

Such profiles—and the broader discourse focused on the presumed failings of the “white working-class” (typified by J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy)—reflected a national tendency to localize the ills of American society within a uniquely racist, homophobic, backward, uneducated, drug-addled, culturally and morally bankrupt, violent, sexually deviant segment of the white population. Yet this view imbues the dispossessed and disenchanted with power they simply do not wield and misdirects attention from the structural causes of inequality. As historian Matt Stanley points out, “poor whites, like poor people across races and regions, do not typically vote.” In fact, only about “20 percent of ‘financially insecure’ Americans are ‘likely voters,’ compared to 63 percent of the most financially secure.”

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, some commentators have even directed eugenicist and exterminationistsentiments at the anti-quarantine protesters, welcoming the demonstrations as a way to purify the (white) gene pool. “I think anyone who shows up at the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms should be asked if they were at a protest recently and, if yes, denied treatment,” one self-described “Jesus follower” tweeted alongside the aforementioned #pennsyltucky hashtag. Such proclamations recall the infamous Daily Kos piece, published just about a month after the 2016 election, which exclaimed, “Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”

This is not to say, of course, that commentators should not criticize the protesters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or Denver, Colorado. But attributing their actions to unintelligence, poverty, region, or cultural deficiency blames the powerless for a pandemic perpetuated by the inaction and avarice of the powerful.

Paths Out of the Pandemic

This misplaced animosity also overlooks the counterhegemonic political movements that have long erupted out of “Trump Country” or “Red America”—from activist Florence Reece’s iconic labor song “Which Side Are You On?” (indelibly linked to the 1931–32 Harlan County War waged between striking coal miners and the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association), to the southern women (often working across racial lines) who undertook their own War on Poverty campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s, to the 2018–19 teachers’ strikes that rattled reliably “red” states like Arizona, West Virginia, Virginia, and Oklahoma.

Instead of casting all “red state” residents as members of a capitalist death cult—and deifying or demonizing workers of color while opposing measures that would ensure their comfort and safety at all times, not just during a pandemic—more privileged observers should take our present crisis as an opportunity to forge alliances and build cross-class, interracial, and intraracial solidarity. COVID-19 has exposed interlocking crises of capitalism, health care, and governance. And as virtually anybody might have predicted, those most vulnerable to economic and medical catastrophes before the coronavirus pandemic have borne the brunt of the outbreak. Just as unsurprising, perhaps, have been the stigma, scrutiny, and patronizing pity attached to poor and working-class populations (of all races) during the pandemic.

With any luck, a growing cultural recognition of the exceptional vulnerability and vitality of working-class people—whose labor has allowed less “essential” middle- and ruling-class Americans to work from home—will prompt a broader reimagining of our political and economic system. A shift away from a regime premised on exploitation and extraction—and toward a new arrangement predicated on mutuality and care—will save lives not only in our present crisis, but also in the interstitial, quotidian crises between crises.

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