In a Pandemic, All Some People See Is Your Color

What COVID-19 reveals about our fraught relationships

A resident of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, on April 4. The man's two brothers had tested positive for the coronavirus in another borough. (Ruddy Roye)

The last night I went out in the city was in late February. I met my friend Grant (whose name has been changed) at the Standard, on Bowery, and we walked over to Bohemian, on Great Jones, to celebrate the 50th birthday of a Broadway producer. After dinner we went down the street to Acme, where a tech entrepreneur was having a dance party to celebrate his 40th. Grant sipped his tequila and began to grow irate because there were so few people of color around. It felt like the 1950s. We were talking to a beautiful Ghanaian woman whom I’d met once before, and when she mentioned a house party in Harlem that a mutual acquaintance was throwing, Grant and I invited ourselves. But as we glided up the FDR we heard the party was a bust. We dropped her off at home and headed to Koreatown, as though we knew it would be one of the last nights we could go out. We ended up in a bar on 34th Street, giving each other the kind of questionable advice that pours out after midnight, when Grant started to thumb at one of his phones.

“It’s Fan,” he said. (Her name has also been changed.) “She’s been under strict quarantine for a month now, and is getting bored.” I shot him a skeptical look as they began to have a text war. They had one of those relationships that reminds you the root of passion is suffering. His parents were immigrants from Taiwan, and he believed he could only ever be happy with an Asian woman. I wasn’t sure I believed him. She wasn’t always as nice to him as she could be. He spoke of his own failings, explained that the friction between them was cultural, and insisted I’d never understand. When he visited China he felt seen, and free of the constant weight of race. I couldn’t argue with that, so I shrugged the way you do when a friend in whom you have faith is navigating something complicated. He told me that weeks in isolation give you time to reflect. “With all that’s going on, though, who knows when I’ll see her.” Neither of us knew we would also go into isolation soon. But before the skylarking ended he told me he’d heard that the official numbers in China were underreported: “They say there were five crematoriums burning around the clock.”

In the United States, the virus was still mostly centered on the West Coast then, but when I spoke with Grant a few days later he told me three cabs had passed him as he was trying to get to a meeting. “I’ve seen it happen to my college roommate. I’ve just never experienced it directly,” he said. “Even an Asian guy looked into my face and kept going.” I wanted to say maybe the cabbie knew about his girlfriend in Sichuan province, but thought better of it. He was still in pain from the affront. Both Grant and his former roommate, who is African American, are Ivy League lawyers, held in high regard by corporate chiefs and presidents. They thought being brilliant, ethical, and successful would protect them. But no matter who you were, or what you had achieved, it could all collapse at any time into race.

Grant’s parents came to America after World War II, part of the second significant wave of Chinese immigration, driven by the new spirit of global cooperation. The first wave had been more than a century earlier, during the California gold rush of the 1850s. But in 1882 Congress passed a law ending further immigration of laborers from China, and the Supreme Court upheld it in 1889. Yet just three years before that, the justices had ruled in Yick Wo v. Hopkins that the Chinese people already here, citizens or not, were entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. At the same time, the Court was engaged in a series of rulings that stripped Fourteenth Amendment rights from the people for whom it had been enacted in the first place: formerly enslaved African Americans. In Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan referenced the Wo decision in his famous dissent, in which he wrote:

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race [cannot].

The messages are more mixed than those in a fraught relationship—sometimes you’re a vile threat; other times you are useful.

Between 1948, when President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, and 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the legal protections that had been ripped away from African Americans post-Reconstruction were slowly restored. That changed with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968: The re-embrace of racist policy began, and white grievance became a core tenet of the Republican Party, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. By the logic of the radical extremism our current president represents, a global pandemic that began in a province of China was called the “Chinese virus.” Rhode Island sought to bar New Yorkers. Gun sales around the country skyrocketed. My friend was snubbed by taxi drivers, even though the vectors of disease were not Asian Americans but the conditions of global existence. With breathtaking swiftness, he lost his individual status, as well as the group status of model minority (always a muddy buffer between whiteness and the continuing oppression of African Americans). The sense of belonging and accomplishment had been doled out and revoked according to the perceptions and needs of whiteness—a bait and switch that Arab Americans know all too well. This was merely the beginning of the ways the pandemic continues to expose the racism beneath the facade of American diversity and exceptionalism.

In the days before the quarantine I did what everyone else was doing: I bought face masks, hand sanitizer, food. I called family and friends around the world. I heard from a friend in California whose brother works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She told me he’d said not to worry. Two days later he told her that was only the official line. A friend in Spain wrote, saying: “I’m afraid.” Someone mailed me a thermometer. Buying one had become impossible. I took my temperature three times a day. I called my mother, who was alone on her birthday, only to be met with reproach after I chided her for going to the grocery store. She needed ingredients to make herself something special, couldn’t I understand? I got into an argument with my oldest friend, the kind of friend you’ve been arguing politics with since before you could vote, when he said that we’d beat this soon—“Come on, Cal,” he said, “we’re Americans.”

I’d never thought very deeply about universal health care or a universal basic income until I saw the people who had inveighed against it anxiously awaiting the stimulus package, and cheering when the government saved Wall Street. I saw what was possible when there was something people really wanted to accomplish. Billionaires and celebrities made ostentatious displays of their concern. But it was plain to see that some problems are so large, only a government can solve them—in fact, is designed to solve them. Transportation, war, poverty, education, public health.

A friend of a friend was intubated. A classmate was assigned to an ER in a part of Brooklyn where people weren’t practicing social distancing. Another was running the COVID‑19 unit at a hospital uptown. A third, usually an ice-cold bastard, broke down in tears on the way home from work. We were told there would be no difference in the ways medical care was allocated. People in medical circles were using the word apocalypse. But what happens before you get to the hospital?

By early April, it was well established that black people across the country were dying from the disease at about twice the rate of white people. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio noted, there is “a striking overlap of where this virus is doing the most damage and where we’ve had historic health-care disparities.” The situation is much the same in Latino and Native American communities. “We could get wiped out,” the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, Kevin Allis, said. The virus doesn’t discriminate, but the world we occupy does. In addition to the damage wrought by environmental pollution—higher in communities of color—and discrepancies in quality of care, there is also the stress of racism on the black body, most obviously manifest in the greater frequency of conditions such as high blood pressure. Even in normal times, black people’s life expectancy is more than three years lower than white people’s.

I debated for weeks whether to leave the city—looking for places that had good hospitals and where I’d be socially comfortable—before finally deciding to stay. “You can’t outrun a virus,” I replied to an ex, who had reached out to me from another country, recalling how things were after 9/11. In those days, I would wake early and read Marcus Aurelius before taking long walks next to the river at sunrise, thinking about the first Dutch settlement, the English takeover, the British campaign to hold the city during the Revolutionary War, and the market at the foot of Wall Street where Africans and Native Americans were sold. The ways the country changes and the ways it never seems to. You know how the mind wanders at that hour. Staring down at the streets of Brooklyn now, I think less about the plague and the 1918 flu than smallpox-infected blankets knowingly given to Native Americans; the syphilis transmitted by Europeans into a population that had never encountered the disease before; the yellow-fever epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries that spread, port to port, from the Caribbean, like a florescent trace mark of the economics of slavery; and the malaria-ridden swamps where Africans died by the boatload to produce cotton, rice, and sugar. Homegrown tragedies for a nation that is as frail as it has ever been, and has still less care for the world.

This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “The Last Night Out.”