By Zachary Bynum

Note from the author: In a time where everything feels like the world is coming in on itself, I have to turn away from social media. However, lately  it’s given me a great deal of inspiration. While I was on Twitter, I saw a post by user @hotboyleel which drew my attention:

“Americans that are more upset about merchandise than all of the Black lives that have been taken are why we are in this situation in the first place. Black lives cannot be replaced.”  “This country prioritizes money & capitalism more than Black lives,” and we won’t be free until we dismantle the systems that allow this. In order to achieve racial justice, we have to look at the interlocking systems that stymie its success. For centuries, we’ve written laws, enacted policies, and literally laid our bodies on the line for the fragile rights that are so routinely denied and broken to this day. Racial capitalism, the interconnectedness of capitalism, white supremacy, and racism is a driving force behind this systemic inequality, and the time is ripe for these systems to fall. But, that can’t happen until we educate and organize ourselves and our communities. While we take to the streets to fight for those lost to racist police violence,  #GeorgeFloyd, #AhmaudArbery, and #BreonnaTaylor, let’s also honor and fight for those lost to the racist and inept leadership of the American government. Let’s end racial capitalism and reimagine a world where Black lives don’t come with a price tag.  #TashonnaWard

Corona called to remind you that we ain’t equal…

Black people don’t have equality in a country built on their backs…

Today’s black movements against state violence and mass incarceration call for an end to “racial capitalism” and deem their work as part of a “black radical tradition”- terms associated with the works of African American political theorists Cedric J. Robinson. Cedric J. Robinson

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Born November 5, 1940, Robinson grew up in a working-class neighborhood in West Oakland. He was an incredibly intelligent child who spent hours in the library soaking in everything from Greek philosophy to modern literature.He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in social anthropology and rose to prominence as a campus activist. He helped bring Malcolm X to campus and protested the Bay of Pigs Invasion, for which he received a one-semester suspension. After graduating in 1963 and briefly joining the army, Robinson worked for the Alameda County Probation Department, encountering both a racially biased criminal justice system and employees determined to change it—including his future wife, Elizabeth Peters. By 1967, inspired by the urban rebellions and antiwar movement, the couple chose to pursue a life of social activism and intellectual work.

In 1974, Robinson earned his doctorate in political theory from Stanford University with his then-controversial dissertation: “Leadership: A Mythic Paradigm.” The dissertation challenged the liberal and Marxist theories of political change, arguing that “leadership—the idea that effective social action is determined by a leader who is separate from or above the masses of people—and political order are essentially fictions.” When he submitted his dissertation, faculty was ill-prepared to review a dissertation that so soundly and elegantly questioned the foundations of the entire discipline. Several committee members resigned claiming to not understand the work. Overall, it took three years and the threat of a lawsuit for the dissertation to be approved. Not to mention, it took another six years before it was published as The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (1980).

Robinson’s critique of the authority of leadership and political order, anticipated the horizontally rather than vertically organized movements of today, movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. 

His monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) takes Karl Marx to task for failing to comprehend radical movements outside of Europe. He scrutinizes the idea that Marx’s categories of class can be universally applied outside of Europe, and characterizes black rebellion as an expression of “Black Radical Tradition” which challenged Western social analysis. Robinson also scrutinized Marxism for not accounting for the racial character of capitalism. This is when he coined the term “racial capitalism” which he picked up from other intellectuals who used the term to describe South Africa’s system of apartheid. He expanded the term as a “description of a specific system to a way of understanding the general history of modern[day] capitalism”

Building on the work of Black radical intellectual Oliver C. Cox, Robinson argued that capitalism was born out of the feudal system and flowered into the cultural soil of the West which had already been thoroughly racialized. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide which we are steal dealing with the effects of today. 

Black Marxism was largely ignored for two decades, until its return to print in 2000 created renewed interest. While Black Marxism and its discussion of racial capitalism and the “Black Radical Tradition” have taken center stage, Robinson leaves a vast body of work as a political and cultural theorist. He was described as a challenging thinker who understood that “the most profound truths tend to bewilder.” When asked what his political commitments were he responded, “There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people.”

In 2016, during a polarizing election cycle where Black Lives Matter protests were happening all across the country, Robinson died. Not a single major news network or even a newspaper bothered to cover his death which one might accredit to the highly polarizing election coverage that captivated the entire media landscape. Not even a paragraph was written to commemorate it, which brings me to the issue: the inequality we’re seeing during the coronavirus pandemic has its roots in racial capitalism.  

“If white America has a cold, black America has the flu. If white America has Covid-19, what does Black America have?”

The short answer is: a huge fucking problem not of our own making. The long answer can be illustrated by Madonna, white pop and feminist icon for whom inequality has been both a political and artistic topic. 

On Sunday, March 23, 2020 pop icon Madonna posted a dramatic video (now deleted, wonder why) of her sharing her feelings about the Coronavirus pandemic. 

In the video, Madonna, 61, sits naked in a tub filled with water and pink rose petals and describes the Coronavirus as “the great equalizer” as slow music plays in the background.

She says, “That’s the thing about COVID-19, “It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell. It’s the great equalizer.” These comments completely missed the mark of global reality.

On March 23rd, Johns Hopkins University reported that at least 341,000 people had contracted Covid-19 globally; CBS News reported 43,600 people across the U.S. had contracted the virus. Countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy continued to tighten quarantine measures in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Vice President Mike Pence had originally been running the daily Coronavirus Task Force press briefings up until then. At a press briefing earlier that month he said, “Washing your hands with hot soap and water, 20 seconds, is just as good as any lotion you can buy,” with a paternally calm presence. He received “good marks” for his response.

Huh? Lotion acts as a moisturizer, not a disinfectant. Given their completely different purposes, what the Vice President meant to communicate in his comparison of the two is still unclear, but he is right about his initial claim. Washing your hands with hot soap and water for 20 seconds is the best way to fight infection and many Americans know this.

A study done by Bradley Corporation, a manufacturer of commercial plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories, found that during the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009 only 45% of Americans said they elevated their hand hygiene in response to virus outbreaks. By 2019, that number had risen to 79%. The rise is accredited to the increased outbreaks over the past decade. John Domisse director of strategy and corporate development for Bradley Corp. said, “Now, the unprecedented spread of coronavirus has placed an even more intense spotlight on the importance of thorough hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.” 

The Bradley Corporations finding supports a very important idea: national focus on outbreaks does have an affect on hand hygiene. 50% of Americans say news coverage of cold and flu outbreaks has a “very large” or “somewhat large” impact on their hand washing behavior.

Other key findings included that amongst all age groups, Millennials expressed the most trepidation about getting sick. Meanwhile, 64% of Americans correctly believe that hand washing is more effective in removing germs than hand sanitizer – a fact supported by the CDC.

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Trump became competitive as he watched Mr. Pence, his own Vice President, get good marks for his ‘handwashing as good as lotion response,’ so the president decided to take over the briefings himself, using it as a venue to talk about his usual grievances with the news media and promote his own “stellar” job performance. In the press briefing, he made a number of inaccurate claims while experts stood behind him showing minimal emotional responses, just patiently waiting their turn to speak.

Public health experts questioned the example set by packing crowds of officials into a small space that does not allow for the standard 6-ft spacing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which took place for almost 90 minutes daily even as social distancing was being heavily encouraged.  

In fact, Dr. Anthony Faucci, known as the scientific voice of reason during the pandemic, said in a Science magazine interview, “I keep saying, is there any way we can get a virtual news conference,” but, Judd Deere, representative of the Trump administration denied ever hearing this request. The dangers of the setup were evident after John Karl of ABC News, said a journalist who had been at the White House was suspected to have caught the virus begging the question of when the President would stop. 

Fauci’s comments resonated with a number of Trump’s allies as well as his enemies. Sean Spicer, a former White House official suggested “Skype seats,” an idea he had originally come up with to allow smaller outlets to join press briefings. David Axelrod, a former adviser to Obama, claimed that the briefings not only fail in accuracy but optics as well. Axlerod even criticized the location of the press briefings offering alternatives in his comments. Alxerod said, “Even if the briefings were held in the East or State Rooms, where people could be spaced, it would be better.”

Trump aides claimed the president viewed the room as “iconic.” New York Times journalist Anni Karni in her article In Daily Coronavirus Briefing, Trump Tries to Redefine Himself claims that he believes the room gave him a kind of “imprimatur”  that his Democratic presidential opponents or governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York could not replicate. 

Karni reports that the briefings were anything but that. He read from a binder in front of him with little effect, tripping on the words as if he has not yet reviewed them. He’s been known to use his own edits he adds to the draft created by his advisers. A week prior to March 23, a Washington Post photographer captured an image that showed Mr. Trump had crossed out the word “corona” and replaced it with “Chinese” virus.

Trump even invited his daughter, Ivanka Trump, to a White House briefing although she has no role in the administration’s task force. She sat silent in a chair to the side and reporters were like:


I highlight this because inept political leadership should not be normalized. It should not be trivialized or minimized. How Donald Trump has conducted himself since his campaign started in 2015 should seriously make you question not just his emotional health and stability, but the overall health of this nation and democracy. That’s why the issue of coronavirus feels so confounding.

Back to Madonna’s IG post which added: “What’s terrible about it is that it’s made us all equal in many ways — and what’s wonderful about it is that it’s made us all equal in many ways.”

On Instagram, her comments section was flooded with negative messages. One person wrote: “Sorry my queen, love u so much, but we’re not equal. We can die from the same diseases, but the poor will suffer the most. Do not romanticise … this tragedy.”

“Like I used to say at the end of ‘Human Nature’ every night, we are all in the same boat,” she said. “And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.”

Another comment read:  “If the ship is going down, do you really think we’re going down together while you’re in your bathtub having people working for you to be there? I love you, my queen. But things outside your mansion are very different from what you think. Stay safe and be a little more empathic to the less privileged…”

She captioned the video: “No-Discrimination- Covid-19!! #quarantine #covid_19 #staysafe #becreative” 

Almost a week later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also described the virus as a “great equalizer” after his own brother, CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo, tested positive for the virus. Cuomo, 62, stated that his brother felt fine and that “he’s young.” He went on to say, “He’s an essential worker, remember, the press. He’s been out there. If you go out there, the chance that you get infected is very high.”

Yes, essential workers are some of the most at risk people in this pandemic, but let’s not forget who a majority of these essential workers really are: low income, Black, and brown people who are serving on the frontlines during this pandemic. That is not because Black and Brown people are somehow eager to open the country back up and save the doomed economy. It’s because systemic inequality has rendered Black and Brown people’s labor (the jobs they work, the businesses they own) as essential and this is because of racial capitalism. 

For example, the early days of the outbreak in Milwaukee illustrate the inequality that fueled the spread of the virus. The virus entered through affluent white neighborhoods, but public health officials noted that the virus quickly spread to the city’s black community. As of April 2nd, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black. Within a week, Milwaukee went from having one case to nearly 40. Most of the sick people were middle-aged, African American men. By week two, the city had over 350 cases, and almost a week later there were 945 cases countywide, with the bulk of these cases in the city of Milwaukee where the population is 39% black. People of all ages have contracted the virus and about half are African American. For a quick second on Black twitter, the idea that black people could not catch the virus because of their melanin was being circulated, but just as quickly as that myth spread, it was confirmed that Black people had been infected and had died at much higher rates than white people.

The city’s health commissioner said, “We declared racism as a public health issue” because the sad reality is that compounding economic, political, and environmental factors have put black people at higher risk of conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems vulnerable: asthma, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. In Milwaukee, simply being black means your life expectancy is 14 years shorter, on average, than someone whose white.

Madonna and Andrew Cuomo’s comments reflect a disingenuine engagement and helplessly white-washed viewpoint on a persistent issue in America: inequality rooted in discrimination, racism, governmental negligence, and racial capitalism in America. We have not been equal, and Coronavirus has only helped to further illustrate this. Early data has already shown that we are not being impacted in the same ways, so no Madonna, Coronavirus is not “the great equalizer.” 

Because of discrimination and generational inequality, Black people are less likely to own homes than white people and more likely to rent. This puts many black lenders at the mercy of landlords who can kick them out if they can’t pay their rent, and this is happening at a time where people are being urged to stay home. Slowing the spread of the virus in the black community is almost unimaginable given that African Americans also have gravitated to jobs in sectors viewed as “reliable paths to the middle class” — health care, transportation, government, food supply. These same jobs are deemed “essential.” In places like New York City, the virus’ epicenter, black people who are more likely to be “essential workers” were among the only ones still riding the subway after the virus hit.

Because Black lives are not valued, neither is our pain. In January, a 25-year-old day care teacher named Tashonna Ward died after staff at Froedtert Hospital failed to check her vital signs. Federal officials examined 20 patient records and found seven patients, including Ward, didn’t receive proper care. The report didn’t reveal the race of those cases it recorded but the hospital predominantly served black patients creating distrust for many black residents. The fear and mistrust of health systems expressed by many Black and communities of color stem from historically racist, eugenic practices of both governments and individual doctors. These communities have experienced systemic racist violence for generations, and some are even experiencing xenophobic responses to COVID-19.  

Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University who spent 13 years at the CDC, focusing on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system shared her thoughts on the outbreak’s impact. “COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,” said Jones, “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.”

“What black folks are accustomed to in Milwaukee and anywhere in the country, really, is pain not being acknowledged and constant inequities that happen in health care delivery,” Kowalik said. 

Linda Sprague Martinez, a community health researcher at Boston University’s School of Social Work, worries that the government is not paying close enough attention to race, and as the disease spreads, will do too little to blunt its toll.

“When COVID-19 passes and we see the losses … it will be deeply tied to the story of post-World War II policies that left communities marginalized,” Sprague said. “Its impact is going to be tied to our history and legacy of racial inequities. It’s going to be tied to the fact that we live in two very different worlds.”

“Two. Different. Worlds.”

If white America has COVID-19, Black America has a time bomb. Federal, state, and local governments must continue tracking and releasing data on the race of COVID-19 cases, so that public health officials can effectively communicate with all communities in this country, not just the white people. Until then, the burden is still on black people to demand information and related actions that will save their own lives leaving us with just one question: 

If white America has COVID-19, what does Black America have? Two pandemics: racism and coronavirus, both being systemically sustained by the inequality and inequities that are embedded in racial capitalism.

One thought on “Two Pandemics: Racism & Coronavirus

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