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The whiteness of anti-lockdown protests

How ignorance, privilege, and anti-black racism is driving white protesters to risk their lives.

Protesters demonstrate outside the Orange County Administration Building demanding the end of stay-at-home orders and the reopening of Florida businesses.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Last weekend, thousands gathered in Washington, Michigan, Texas, Maryland, and California to protest lockdown orders resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Some marched with rifles draped across their backs and handguns resting on their hips, while others shared conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and his involvement with the Covid-19 vaccine.

Even in larger, less-rural cities in California, groups waved “Trump 2020” flags and marched the streets with signs that read, “No Liberty. No Life.” And these protests only seem to be picking up steam: On Friday, thousands stormed the Wisconsin State Capitol, carrying flags and wearing Tea Party regalia.

But what has been most glaringly obvious about these protests isn’t the far-right theatrics. It’s that almost everyone marching to end stay-at-home orders is white. And if they do return to “regular life” and refuse to distance themselves, their overt disregard will impact the population most vulnerable to the virus — black people.

It’s easy to dismiss the anti-lockdown protests as business per usual in the land of right-wing Trumpism. But there is a much larger issue at play that existed long before President Donald Trump took office, and that he has learned to artfully exploit. It’s why it’s not surprising that in some areas, protesters waved Confederate flags or held signs that read, “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.” The protests are symptomatic of the profound presence of whiteness and white supremacy in America.

On the surface, the protests are about the contentious debate over reopening the economy during a pandemic, when more commerce risks more infections and the overwhelming of our hospital systems. Trump and other Republicans who have pushed to scrap lockdown orders sooner rather than later argue that doing so will prevent the country from going into economic collapse.

“You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” said Trump during a press conference on March 24, when he first began pushing the idea of reopening the economy, only one week into the lockdown. “You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

But if states open back up, it will come at whose expense? In the US, black Americans are dying of Covid-19 at disproportionate rates to other racial and ethnic groups. According to an American Public Media Research Lab report published this week, almost 50,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the country. Data for about three-fourths of those deaths reveals that the mortality rate for blacks is 2.7 times higher than for whites. Although blacks make up only 13 percent of the population, they represent 30 percent of Covid-19 patients in the US. The data continues to reveal which Americans face the greatest risk if the country is reopened.

To be fair, some protesters have expressed a deep financial need to return to work, to keep their lights on and a roof over their heads, which is understandable given that 26 million Americans have lost their jobs — skyrocketing the unemployment rate. As the first of the month quickly approaches, many Americans are wondering how they’ll pay their rent and only 80 million of 171 million Americans have received their CARES act stimulus checks so far.

But these protests are also attended by Trump supporters who have been convinced by conservative media pundits like Fox News contributor Bill Bennett, who during an April 13 interview on Fox, argued that the virus is actually less deadly than the seasonal flu and that “this was not and is not a pandemic.” Before Covid-19 began to ravage our country in February, the Trump administration doubled down on claims that the virus was no more deadly than the seasonal flu, and that containment was “airtight.” These claims were made despite the CDC warning that community spread was inevitable and the country would most likely experience severe interruptions in daily life.

Admittedly, I might also be eager to return to swapping germs, if I thought the virus was nothing worse than a cold and if I lived far away from the cities experiencing widespread infection, as many of the protesters do.

But this isn’t just happening in rural areas. Protests are also happening in wealthy, elite, and yes, very white cities and suburbs too. Residents of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, two Southern California coastal cities in Orange County, aired their grievances by the hundreds last week. Protesters were seen socializing and laughing, wearing pro-Trump baseball caps while standing far less than the advised six feet apart.

Huntington Beach and Newport Beach have some of the highest numbers of confirmed cases in Orange County, yet the residents’ eagerness to end social distancing orders feels informed and motivated by the reality of who is most impacted by Covid-19 — black communities. Both of these cities are predominantly white and affluent; Newport Beach’s median income hovers around $123,000 while Huntington Beach’s is about $88,000, compared to the national median income of $62,000.

While it might seem ludicrous that whiteness and income level would somehow make people immune to infection, there is some truth to such beliefs. In the event that these rich white folks find themselves with a cough and fever, they are more likely to have the reassurance and privilege of access to local testing centers and quality, unbiased health care. Meanwhile, black people do not have access to quality and racially unbiased health care. Between 2010 and 2018, blacks were 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured compared to whites.

Black people also have a higher prevalence of heart disease and high blood pressure, and black men have the shortest life expectancy of all other racial and gender groups — and racism and discrimination are the drivers of these poor health outcomes and inequities. In fact, disparities such as these have never been more apparent than in this pandemic: Doctors have expressed concern that Covid-19 testing is not as accessible to black communities. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos also make up the largest number of essential workers, who are most at risk of infection.

Race and socioeconomics do absolutely play into who is most vulnerable to getting Covid-19 — and who is most likely to die.

Oppression 101

On Twitter earlier this week, I saw a meme about whites feeling oppressed by the current lockdown order, which I knew had to be a joke (boy, was I wrong). During an interview on Fox & Friends, Michigan Conservative Coalition Chair Meshawn Maddock shared that residents of Michigan “feel oppressed” and “there are certain businesses and workers that should be able to safely get back to work right now.”

Oppressed is an interesting word choice. Let’s start first with what racist oppression is. Oppression is not getting a job, a promotion, a business loan, or approved for your dream home solely based on your race — things black people deal with regularly. On the other hand, oppression is not staying in the comfort of your home, with a full fridge, health care, and a 401k. Oppression is also not a term that should be used willy-nilly, at the first feeling of discomfort, crying it to get your way — putting other people’s health and lives at risk. Many of us are uncomfortable right now. But please do not conflate discomfort with oppression.

Being white is the default identity in America. Whiteness is our cultural tapestry. It’s America’s norm, against which all others are measured, and there is a special kind of security that comes along with being the norm. So when you suddenly do not have free rein to go about your business unchecked, it can feel like a massive threat. And in turn, protesters have taken to the streets to fight to keep that security. That feeling of “oppression” these white protesters have voiced is the residual effect of living in a country that has been shaped to cater to their racial majority status, and consequently, their perceived loss of power and privilege.

Ironically, some of these same conservative white groups that want to be liberated now also vehemently fought tooth and nail against movements such as Black Lives Matter and did not understand the value nor the need for blacks to speak out against their actual oppression. Some of these whites fear the same oppression they have inflicted on people of color, and we’re seeing a glimpse of that fear, without any self-awareness, in the pandemic.

To be clear, most Americans, white people included, are sitting tight at home and obeying social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. But as anti-lockdown protests become more politicized, outrage might begin to grow and others may inevitably join the chorus. This could prove to benefit Trump come election time as he plays to his base, targeting states with Democratic governors who have imposed social distancing orders.

But while it’s natural to marvel at how reckless Trump’s tweets are — like the ones that called for residents of Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to “LIBERATE” themselves — the discussion about the president’s Twitter fingers inciting social and racial upheaval is low-hanging fruit. Trump is not the root cause of America’s ongoing saga with racism and white privilege. His rhetoric simply brings to life white supremacist and racially privileged perspectives that have existed for centuries — and have been given the opportunity, in a deeply stressful time, to surface loudly, donning MAGA hats, and exercising their right to bear arms.

Dr. Maia Niguel Hoskin is a college professor of graduate-level counseling, freelance writer, public speaker, and a researcher of all things race, mental health, and social media.