Headlines over the past few weeks have repeated a glaring narrative: Black people are dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19. These deaths are driven not by intrinsic racial difference, but material conditions that form disparities between black working people and other racial groups.
Both nationwide and in Philly, the coronavirus is the latest chapter in a long story. Consider black people in Grey’s Ferry who for years have confronted higher rates of cancer because of exposure to environmental toxins, or deeply impoverished black people in North and West Philly, who struggled to stay nourished before the pandemic and now may be dealing with increased hunger and starvation during the crisis.
What this pandemic has highlighted is the intersection of vulnerability posed by race and class. Many of the workers most exposed to the virus are low-wage. They are often framed as heroic, in a narrative that overlaps with the American romanticization of the “working-class hero.” But such a narrative dodges the reality that being this kind of hero, right now, means that you’re someone this country is willing to sacrifice.
Rashad Shabazz, a professor and cultural geographer at Arizona State University, noted to me that this disease is taking black workers with ripple effects for their families: "When you take a working person out of the house, they are going to feel that for generations.” In other words, the coronavirus will supercharge yet another cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Hard-hit low-income workers in Philly and nationwide are largely black and Latino. Many of these people are also heavily policed. On April 10, a SEPTA bus operator requested that a man get off the bus for not being compliant with a recently enacted requirement to wear face masks, prompted by CDC guidelines highlighting masks to help prevent infection from the coronavirus. The man apparently refused, and cops removed him from the bus, which was recorded on video and shared widely.
Even though plenty of white and other Philadelphians could be found outside not wearing masks, it was no surprise to see a black man specifically targeted for not complying. Black men are used to being unfairly perceived as threats — as we’ve seen yet again in the fatal February shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, pursued by white men with a gun when he was simply out jogging, that regained attention this month. For that reason, as Jenice Armstrong reported in the Inquirer, some of these men worry that wearing masks will subject them to more racist surveillance. That forces a choice between the desire to protect themselves from the coronavirus, and the desire not to be “seen as criminal,” says Shabazz.
Even U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who is black himself, finger-wagged at people of color during an April press conference, calling on them specifically to follow national guidelines and avoid drugs and alcohol to fight the pandemic: “if not for yourself then for your abuela, do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big mama.”
What the actions of Philadelphia police and the comments of the Surgeon General have in common is a focus on personal responsibility and compliance that only gets directed at certain groups. Rather than lecturing the white protesters — some of whom were armed — who defied recommendations against forming large crowds to protest social distancing, for example, the Surgeon General said the protests “bring up an important point” of encouraging hope for society reopening. Beyond the racial bias underlying these different responses lies the hateful rhetoric to people of color that such targeted policing is for their own good.
The COVID-19-related deaths among black and working-class people also mean the death of those individuals’ unique experiences and cultural memory. Disappearing Blackness, a campaign created by the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, highlights loss of cultural memory caused when gentrification forces communities to disperse. This ongoing loss of space and stories for working class black people is now being accelerated by the virus.
As we endure and recover from this pandemic, we should look for more ways to protect the cultural memory of devastated communities. That means not only trying to save more black lives through, for example, reparations to address economic exploitation of low-wage black workers, universal healthcare that tackles a lack of health resources, and redress for environmental racism. It also means taking time now to document the experiences of the black and working people who America expected to be heroic, and die.
Abdul Aliy-Muhammad is an organizer and writer born and raised in West Philadelphia. @MxAbdulAliy