But two things have happened: People are increasingly in denial about certain things that are obviously racialized for partisan reasons, the president being one of them. But another thing is that when those incidents do not have clear ideological stakes, it is actually much easier for white people across the political spectrum to identify something that is a racial injustice, because it looks so familiar to moments in our history that we have come to think of as shameful, collectively.
James Hamblin: How are you seeing the racial contract play out in terms of coronavirus?
Serwer: When you look at the way that [some officials] talk about, for example, workers in meatpacking plants, or the way that they’re talking about states where the racial disparity has been extremely lopsided, you saw a pretty big tone shift from the White House and from Fox News after the news about the racial disparities came out, which was basically, Oh, this isn’t really our problem. This is not affecting the people that we consider our people.
This is not a dynamic that’s particularly unique to the coronavirus. It applies to a lot of serious social problems. If you go back to 2010, when the Democrats were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act, one of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s talking points against it was they were calling it reparations. There’s this whole idea of saying, “Oh, this is those people’s problem and not your problem.” In some ways, it can manifest as an almost unconscious mechanism: It’s not going to hurt me; it’s going to hurt them. So what’s the big deal? But sometimes it is conscious.
Because I’m not a mind reader, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which happened here. But part of the strength of the racial contract as a concept is that it works by people implicitly understanding the rules and by the train following the tracks, regardless of how new the train is. People are acting out the implicit terms of the racial contract without even thinking about the fact that that’s what they’re doing.
Hamblin: There are the racial disparities in who’s most likely to contract the disease, to have severe outcomes, or to die from it. We’re seeing, in New York for example, 80 percent of the summonses that have been issued for social-distancing violations were given to people who were black or Latino, even though we’ve also clearly seen instances of packed, primarily white neighborhoods that were not being cracked down on.
Serwer: The racial contract shapes the thinking of people who are liberal and conservative. New York is a great example of this because [Mayor] Bill de Blasio is a liberal Democrat. And he’s not only a liberal Democrat, but he won the Democratic primary in part because of this striking ad about stop-and-frisk. One of the things that de Blasio said was, essentially, “I understand how this kind of systemic inequality works, even though I’m a white guy, because I have a black son. And I don’t want him to be stopped by the police just because he’s black.” What you’ve seen in New York is this mayor who has this incredibly personal connection to the question of unequal enforcement of the law and how it disadvantages people of color, who is essentially presiding over an administration in which white people standing too close together in Lower Manhattan are getting handed masks by police and black people in East New York are being thrown to the ground. It’s really striking because, again, the train follows the track. This is how this works. This is how this works because that’s how it’s built to work. It’s very difficult to change the direction of the train if you don’t build another track.