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Black Death in the Time of COVID-19

A woodcut depicts the capture of a fugitive slave by a slave patrol. Slave patrols were common in Georgia from 1757 until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839

By Melissa C. Brown

This piece is part of the Spring 2020 series RACIALIED PANDEMICS: Stories from OUR Communities.

Commentary

‘A modern-day lynching,’ goes the chorus of mourners who turned to Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites to decry the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man shot down on a Georgia afternoon this February by two white men with guns. But you see, for Georgia boys, ain’t nothin’ modern about lynching. The government of the Peach State has deputized its white citizens as catchers of Black folks on the run since the Act for Establishing and Regulating of Patrols in 1757. These slave patrols had the right to police enslaved people and arrest them if they didn’t have identification from their owners, were outside after a certain time of night, or were gathered in places and spaces deemed inaccessible to anyone other than white citizens. They also had the right to enforce any consequences they deemed necessaryincluding death. 

The end of slavery did not suddenly dissolve the dynamic of white catcher/black fugitive in the decades after the Civil War era. Instead, the Good Ole Boys of the post-slavery South demonstrated great and methodical resistance to what they saw as the imposition of Yankee values on their way of life. Let Freedmen vote? Educate their children? Teach their wives to be good, Christian mothers? Lynching ensured that even as Black southerners fought for citizenship, voting rights, and equality, their white counterparts could use violence to dismantle any effort to endow the formerly enslaved and their children with any sense of freedom. Yet, lynching served as just one of many terroristic tactics that continues to shape the racial infrastructure of the U.S. South and Georgia remains home to some of racism’s most heinous dysfunctions. Just as Georgia fails to give justice to the largely Black and Brown victims of white vigilantism, the state also fails to provide adequate healthcare and protection to their essential workforce of largely Black and Brown people.

Take, for example, the upsurge in tuberculosis that occurred during World War I. Historian Tera W. Hunter writes about how racism shaped the public health response to the infectious lung disease in Georgia and throughout the south in her 1997 book To'joy my freedom: Southern black women's lives and labors after the Civil War. According to Hunter, white physicians attributed the spread of tuberculosis to Black domestic servants. They used the disease to justify racist assumptions about the inherent uncleanliness of Black southerners, therefore justifying the solidification of racial inequality. Scientific and medical racism perpetuated the belief that Black Americans had an altogether different health status than white Americans as well as “a marked predilection for insanity, typhoid fever, syphilis, alcoholism, bodily deformities, idiocy, and especially, tuberculosis.”  Hunter writes that white southerners attributed the spread of tuberculosis to a host of causes: the end of slavery and plantation life; the emergence of black urban enclaves; and the diminished ability of whites to surveil Black people now that they had freedom, among many other explanations. If not for Black physicians and public health professionals, Black Southerners would have continued to suffer and die at disproportionate rates due to the negligence of medical racism. 

That the scientific and medical racism that shaped the early twentieth-century tuberculosis response coincided with hundreds of lynchings throughout the United States reveals how in the twenty-first century, we can bear witness to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in the time of COVID-19. On May 8, 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that revealed that Black Georgians made up 83.2% of over 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state. The most recent data from the COVID Racial Data Tracker from the COVID Tracking Project and the Antiracist Research & Policy Center indicate Black people account for most of the deaths in Georgia, 48% of 1609 counted thus far. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people continues throughout numerous states, urban, and rural areas throughout the U.S. Concurrently, as calls heightened in March for preventive measures such as social distancing and a moratorium on arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors, two white men in Georgia whom found it in themselves to raise the specter of southern days of old when they chose to grab their guns and hunt Ahmaud Arbery down in late February remained free.

Numerous articles have addressed how racism and capitalism continue to function together to contribute to the ongoing health inequities that affect Black Americans. In a recent piece for Health Education & Behavior (HEB), sociologist Whitney Pirtle attributes the inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to racial capitalism. Political scientist Cedric J. Robinson defines racial capitalism as the ways “racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism” in his landmark book Black Marxism. According to Pirtle, racial capitalism has caused health inequities throughout U.S. history, pointing to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as a recent example. In the context of COVID-19, Pirtle centers on Detroit, Michigan to show how racial differences emerge in a state where Black people represent 40% of COVID-19 deaths even though they make up only 14% of the state’s population. Pirtle asserts that racial capitalism: influences multiple disease outcomes; increases the number of disease risk factors; restricts access to resources that prevent negative outcomes; and shapes outcomes resulting from the disease over time even after the implementation of interventions. Thus, Pirtle concludes that “racialized capitalist pursuits have left behind the poor, people of color in Detroit, devaluing life so much that it is being easily snatched up by the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

In light of these realities, we must recognize how COVID-19 inequities result from systemic, rather than interpersonal causes. Therefore, suggestions that Black and Brown people wear masks or quit smoking to protect our abuelitas and big mamas, completely miss the reasons Black, Latinx, and indigienous Americans continue to have higher rates of exposure to COVID-19. Instead, we must press our governments at the local and federal level to offer systemic solutions like rent, mortgage, and student loan forgiveness; mass and free testing for both the disease and antibodies; and adequate paid sick leave. Additional measures should provide financial support to caregivers and caretakers of people affected by COVID-19. Until we shift away from a perspective on the health of people of color that shifts blame to victims, we risk repeating the mistakes of pandemics of the past. 

On February 24, 2020, the day after Ahmaud’s death, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a media briefing wherein he informed China had over 70,000 cases and over 400 deaths in the past 24 hours. Five days later, the CDC reported the first known COVID-19 death in the United States in the state of Washington. By mid-March, several states announced lockdowns referred to as stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. While the state of Georgia would follow suit, the governor Brian Kemp would reverse course less than a month later, permitting venues like salons, gyms, and bowling alleys to reopen their doors, citing a need to get people back to work and stimulate the economy.

Kemp’s decision does not follow the recommendations of CDC or WHO, which recommend a phased reopening as well as evidence of at least two weeks of declines in cases and deaths. As Benjamin G. Davis and William H. Widen write in the piece “No Market Solution for Black Death: COVID-19 Guidelines As Crime” for the legal research blog Jurist, the willingness of the federal government and several governors to put the economy over the wellbeing over workers leads us to “fear there will be much more death and too much rationalization of that death. Especially if it is primarily among the elderly, the poor, the black and the brown.” Still, if we take heed of Tera W. Hunter’s description of public health in the time of tuberculosis, we should suspect confirmation of our fears. 

 Just like its health system, the infrastructure of justice and governance in the Empire State of the South intends to disenfranchise people of color while absolving their white citizens of guilt. This power imbalance also explains why the men responsible for Ahmaud’s death remained free until May 7th, after public outcry and national media attention prompted the Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to request that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) pursue an investigation. Before then, the Hinesville District Attorney Tom Durden, appointed on April 13th to investigate Ahmaud’s death nearly two months later, had proposed in a news release that he would wait until after June 12th to convene a grand jury to determine charges against Ahmaud’s killers due to the Georgia Supreme Court’s prohibition against court convenings as a result of COVID-19. Recently, Durden requested that a different district attorney take up the case, which led to the appointment of the Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes

The absurdity of a district attorney pointing to COVID-19 as a reason to avoid charges at the time brings into question why Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael had avoided indictment to begin with. Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County investigator and police officer, had close ties with members of the court system including Jackie Johnson, the county’s district attorney, who eventually recused herself. Her replacement, Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, would go on to recuse himself as well after it came to light that his son worked as an assistant prosecutor for Johnson’s circuit. These close ties would initially work in the McMichaels’ favor. On May 8th, the same day Ahmaud Arbery would have turned 26, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that two commissioners from Glynn County claimed that Johnson prevented the Glynn County Police Department from arresting her former colleague and his son. According to commissioners Allen Booker and Peter Murphy, the police felt they had probable cause to make an arrest but received direction to not do so. 

Confronting the realities of systemic racism as it shapes healthcare can also prompt a reckoning with racist violence as an expression of racial capitalism, since the occurrence of the pandemic not only coincided with the death of Ahmaud Arbery, but also an increase in anti-Asian violence as conservatives stoked “yellow peril” rhetoric in an attempt to absolve the federal government of responsibility for mishandling the initial response to the pandemic arriving on U.S. shores. COVID-19 did not and cannot unsettle the American status quo. Thus, the mechanisms that facilitate Black death in the U.S. will remain multifaceted and unchallenged.

 

Melissa Brown is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a PhD in sociology in 2019. Her areas of expertise include intersectionality, digital sociology, social movements, and sexual politics. For more information about Melissa’s work, please go to blackfeminisms.com.