Crime, Contagion, and Color


What do viral pandemics and mass-shootings have in common? The finger-crossing, hold-your-breath kind of hope beyond hope by people of color in the US that the source of the havoc, heartbreak, or health crisis has absolutely nothing to do with people of color.

The news hits: At least a half-dozen dead following a shooter’s rampage. Black, Muslim, South Asian, Native, Latino, and Arab Americans hold their breath. The collective sigh is audible following the next bit of news: The suspect is a white male.

The suspect is usually white, but statistics never seem to stem the anxiety, because people of color understand the secondary violence that would follow if he were not – the added levels of suspicion, bias, and targeting that every member of the suspect’s ethnicity (and people perceived to be of that group) would suffer.

As fears of COVID-19 spread, East Asian people in the US and Americans of East Asian descent are experiencing an acute level of this “otherness.” Instances of strange looks and hostile words and physical violence have been reported, and the online ignorance has gone, well, viral.

The revelation that the mass-murderers in Las Vegas, Newtown, and Columbine were white did not put white people collectively under a microscope of racial scrutiny; neither did the 21st-century resurgence of mumps. Anti-vaxxers receive the ire of the general public; the fact that the anti-vaxxers are white is incidental. Any violence committed under the banner of Islamic extremism means that American Muslims will steel themselves against the judging eyes of passersby, but violence committed by self-avowed white nationalists doesn’t threaten the liberties of white people in general.

The normativity of whiteness means that white people are not held individually responsible for the atrocities committed by one white person or for the health threats whose origins are in non-white countries. Conversely, the normativity of whiteness also means that all people of color have to endure being perceived as threats to safety, security, and health when one person of color is identified as dangerous or when a viral threat has its origins in a non-white country.

Whiteness-as-default means that people of color suffer undue negative judgment – or anxiously anticipate it, whether it comes or not. It also means that people of color bear an unfair, hypertension-inducing burden of being model citizens because they understand the outsized impacts of their successes, failures, wins, and missteps. In her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at the 1939 Oscars, Hattie McDaniel said, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race…” White supremacy means that white people never feel that the weight of “their people’s” prospects for success sits squarely on their shoulders.

The threat of this latest coronavirus is real, but its impact is already proving to be more than deadly infections and crippled economies. Like other racialized outbreaks – whether of violence or illness but always deadly – this one also victimizes groups whose belonging, ability, and even humanity have been questioned since the dawn of American society.

Note: The image is from the fashion brand, People of Colour Clothing, which "provides opportunities for people to examine their conscious behavior as it relates to discrimination and racism." The essay was first published at systemic160.com.

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