Months ago, when the first news stories about COVID-19 were published, I read a convoluted Facebook status from one of my 4992 closest friends that connected the coronavirus to “mandated vaccinations”—which, according to them, would actually be an elaborate government ploy to implant chips in us and track our behavior.
If I’d had time that day, I would’ve reminded them that they’d already given meticulous information about their family members, places of employment, living situations, shopping habits, political viewpoints, entertainment preferences, health and wealth—with hi-res pictures for context (and time stamps and location pings on said pictures)—on Facebook. And added that their iPhone is a tracking and recording device. There’s no point in a conspiracy to steal data from you when you’ve already volunteered it. I didn’t have time, though, so I kept scrolling.
The conspiracy theorist is one of the most familiar black American archetypes. If you’re reading this and happen to be black, you can likely list several friends and family members who qualify. Of course, we’re not the only ones who happen to believe in these sort of intentional government machinations. Fox News, the nation’s largest cable news network, downplayed the extent of the coronavirus’s danger for months because of a belief that science is somehow partisan. The most appropriate MAGA hat would be a tinfoil snapback.
What distinguishes the black American conspiracy theorist from them is that their belief in clandestine interference has a valid historical context, as we’ve been uniquely victimized by our government. The Tuskegee experiment did happen. COINTELPRO did happen. Redlining did happen. Gerrymandering is happening. Voter suppression is happening. So even if they’re wrong about some particular, conspiracy-negating facts, they’re right about America.
With this context, the belief that the disproportionate impact the coronavirus is having on our communities is a result of targeted intentionality...makes sense. It just does. It reads right. It sounds right. It feels right. If ambitious, you could even include that the belief that we’re immune from this virus—which, unfortunately, was very popular just six weeks ago—was the result of a misinformation campaign to make us lax.
But, as The Root’s Anne Branigin and ProPublica (and many, many, many other media outlets and journalists and academics and black people on Twitter) noted, we are dying at higher rates, not because of a particular, coronavirus-related conspiracy, but because America has made us uniquely vulnerable to it.
Experts say that the nation’s unwillingness to publicly track the virus by race could obscure a crucial underlying reality: It’s quite likely that a disproportionate number of those who die of coronavirus will be black.
The reasons for this are the same reasons that African Americans have disproportionately high rates of maternal death, low levels of access to medical care and higher rates of asthma, said Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University.
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,” said Jones, who spent 13 years at the CDC, focused on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system. “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.”
The likelihood that “a disproportionate number of those who die of coronavirus will be black” has become a reality. We’re also more likely to possess the sort of economic vulnerability that makes it more difficult to practice social distancing, more likely to be at the mercy of unsympathetic landlords, less likely to be insured and more likely to have the sort of occupation that places us on the front lines.
Because of discrimination and generational income inequality, black households in the county earned only 50% as much as white ones in 2018, according to census statistics. Black people are far less likely to own homes than white people in Milwaukee and far more likely to rent, putting black renters at the mercy of landlords who can kick them out if they can’t pay during an economic crisis, at the same time as people are being told to stay home. And when it comes to health insurance, black people are more likely to be uninsured than their white counterparts.
African Americans have gravitated to jobs in sectors viewed as reliable paths to the middle class — health care, transportation, government, food supply — which are now deemed “essential,” rendering them unable to stay home. In places like New York City, the virus’ epicenter, black people are among the only ones still riding the subway.
After reading through this again, I think I might have misspoken. The coronavirus’s effect on us ain’t due to a single, targeted, conspiracy, but maybe a consequence of a culmination of collective, decades-long, conspiracies.
Am I right about this? I don’t know. But knowing America, I know I’m not wrong.