As the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on our health and, indeed, on our way of life, researchers are scrambling to find a solution. As a result, we’re learning a great deal about the science behind this menace. But we are also learning a great deal about its social consequences. And those demographic findings indicate that within this disease lurks another, deeper disease.
The cumulative data clearly show the disproportionately devastating impact of this virus on the African-American community. According to governmental statistics culled by The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic magazine, Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to contract the virus and 2.5 times more likely to die from it. This is not a marginal difference; it is truly double trouble.
Naturally, our most immediate concern is for the lives lost, for the bodies ravaged, and for the holes torn in the fabric of families and communities. But we cannot ignore the pattern in these color-coded outcomes. Nor should we suppose that there is no cause behind this effect.
We know some of the proximate causes that make African Americans more vulnerable to this disease. These include an enormous wealth gap, the type of work in which Black people are more likely to engage, the location and density of Black populations, and their more limited access to health care. Note, however, that these conditions are not mere accidents of history. Something or somebody caused these causes.
It’s tempting to lay the blame on slavery and Jim Crow and other forms of historic discrimination—that is, on evils committed by previous generations. But while that history helps to explain how our racial hierarchy arose, it doesn’t explain why it endures well into the 21st century—much less why we’re not trying very hard to get rid of it. Could it be that there’s something about this asymmetrical arrangement that actually suits those of us who are members of the white majority?
Well, certain material benefits do undoubtedly accrue to those at the top of a racialized social pyramid. It turns out, however, that we also have a significant psycho-spiritual incentive to protect our status. This incentive arises from a moral flaw embedded deep within white identity. I call it racial haughtiness, a condescending attitude that reflexively organizes the world around it to conform to its superior pretensions.
Of course, this current crop of white Americans did not create our racial hierarchy. But an undeniable moral solidarity binds us to our forebears. For the same haughtiness that incited them to perpetrate a racialized social structure even now incites us to perpetuate it. And the caretakers of injustice cannot escape its stench.
Not only do we have a disease within a disease; this inner disease is itself multidimensional. At first glance, the disparate impact of this COVID crisis between Black people and white people looks like a public health problem. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because that public health problem arises out of a social equity problem. Dig a little deeper, and you discover that the social equity problem is ultimately a moral problem.
Of the two diseases, the inner variety is actually far more insidious. It has been with us as long as we have been us, and throughout the history of this country racial haughtiness has produced far more suffering and death than the coronavirus ever could.
It’s tempting to think that once we get past this current crisis—once we defeat the disease—then perhaps we can double back to these deeper issues. But moral accounting, particularly our own, never draws a crowd. As soon as we don’t have to think about this matter, we won’t.
So, why not take some small portion of the time we spend in endless prattling about the disease and dedicate it to an honest discussion about its inner dimension? If we can ever overcome this disease within a disease, we will be not only a healthier nation but a better one.