Ibram X. Kendi: Stop blaming black people for dying of the coronavirus
Our sense that suffering is normal is also racial. Many white Americans regard their own suffering as virtuous, while maintaining that public health care would only be abused by Black people and immigrants. In other words, suffering is normal so long as others suffer more. During the pandemic, this everyday American sensibility has been on full display in widespread white indifference to a disease that has killed Black and Latino people disproportionately. Racial inequality brings unnecessary death. It also brings a sentiment that an authoritarian leader can exploit: Namely, that those who suffer the most are themselves at fault. When racism is a preexisting condition, the disproportionate death rates of Americans of color during a pandemic seem normal.
Given these grievous problems, America’s only hope of stopping the COVID-19 pandemic was to do so at the outset. Such efforts have been mounted before. Under George W. Bush, the number of SARS cases in the U.S. was limited, and no one died. In 2014, the Obama administration took the fight against Ebola to West Africa, a prudent step that was normal then but that seems like science fiction now.
Before the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., the Trump administration dismantled the institutions that were responsible for early warning and early action. By telling Americans in February what they wanted to hear about the virus—that it was not serious, that it would disappear, that everyone could get a test—Trump ensured that death would be widespread. By failing to institute a regime of testing, he made it normal for us to follow our own guesswork and emotions rather than dealing with facts. This was a profound choice, and Trump made it explicitly: For him to feel good personally about artificially low numbers was more important than for Americans to accumulate the knowledge that we would need to survive.
The Trump administration announced a kind of new federalism, in which governors would have to show their loyalty to get federal assistance, and in which the Democratic ones would be blamed regardless of what happened. The bluster shrouded the basic decision, which was not to launch a federal response to the pandemic. No nationwide lockdown, no national testing initiative, no national contact-tracing initiative, no nationwide signaling on wearing masks and washing hands. This set the United States apart from every other comparable country.
After first blaming Democrats for not doing enough, Trump switched to blaming them for doing too much. He placed himself on the side of those who opposed public-health protections, and helped to create a sense among some of his supporters that lockdowns and quarantines were a power grab by liberals. By tweeting in April that states should be “liberated” at a time when armed protesters were at statehouses, he encouraged violence. In June, according to the FBI, men gathered in Ohio to plot the kidnapping of Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. When the plot was exposed, Trump suggested that Whitmer was herself responsible, because she “wants to be a dictator.”