Yolonda Wilson, Race, COVID-19, and the Public “We” (Symposium) [2020 C4eJ 86]

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium | watch the workshop video]

Yolonda Wilson*

Whereas the “public” ideally reflects common social and political life, the “we” emphasizes the interconnectedness of those comprising it. Yet the pronoun “we” is both inclusive and obscuring. If you don’t listen too carefully or think too hard about it, the casual observer can feel included as a member of the group that “we” delineates. At the same time, use of the word “we” can obscure what the real relationships and power dynamics are. A public “we” should, ideally, indicate and reflect the obligations that members of the community have to one another.

In the early days of COVID-19, for example, it was not unusual to hear public officials suggest that “we” were going to get through this together. When it became clear that COVID-19 was going to hit the US hard, scholars in public health, epidemiology, medical sociology, and the like, and others who work broadly on race, racism, and racial health disparities were very interested in how the numbers were shaking out in terms of who was contracting the virus, who was getting sickest, and who was dying. Anecdotally it seemed that black and brown communities were being disproportionately impacted, but it was important to have actual numbers for lots of reasons–including research and public health interventions, such as vaccine development, resource allocation, and contact tracing. Additionally, information about which communities are hit hardest and why could be important for long-range planning, such as public funding for hospitals and clinics, public health messaging, research to combat health disparities. So it is important to be clear about the numbers.

To broaden this lens a bit, we also know that health status is at least partially socially-determined. That is, how much money one has, the kind of work one does, where one lives, and access to grocery stores all make a difference in how healthy one is. In order to have a complete picture and draw meaningful conclusions about the impact of COVID-19, all of this information—not just who is sick and dying, but also where the sick and dying live and work, and under what conditions are they living and working—must form part of the narrative.

Despite states’ early reluctance to release data on the racial demographics of those stricken by COVID-19, a curious thing happened once the numbers started coming in. The numbers confirmed that black people were getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. Actually this wasn’t a curious finding to those of us who work on race and racism. In fact, many predicted it. The same historical and continuing racial injustice that created and contributes to disparities in health status and healthcare also create conditions for racial differences in who is directly affected by COVID-19.

As the numbers confirmed speculation that those who were black and/or Latinx, and later, Native American were disproportionately affected, the public response, particularly among whites, began to shift. As I’ve said elsewhere, the language of “crisis” began to be replaced with language of “personal responsibility.” But the language of personal responsibility is itself often bound up with racist assumptions about who needs to be more responsible. It turns out that white Americans in particular love messages about personal responsibility—when those messages are directed at black people.  

So the conversation about a public health crisis became judgment about morality and irresponsibility, especially with regard to black people’s behavior and health status. Even US Surgeon General Jerome Adams invoked the personal responsibility narrative (and racial stereotypes about black and brown people’s behavior), admonishing black and brown people to “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs,” in order to help stem the spread of the pandemic. Yet, Adams did not address any of the social determinants of health, including structural racism. Instead Adams made vague references to “social ills” and saying that black and brown people were “socially predisposed” to the virus. The idea that “we” were in this public health crisis together was suddenly peppered with a litany of ways black people needed to behave better: from staying home more (despite that fact that black people are more likely to be deemed “essential workers” without the luxury of working from home) to speculation about whether the “colored population” washes their hands properly. In other words, “we” are all in this together, but only if black people act right.

A second attitude began to gather steam around the time that the data revealed the racial disparities in the effects of COVID-19. The idea that we were in this together and needed to do things like stay home (to the extent that we could) or wear masks for the sake of everyone, especially those among us who were the most vulnerable, was suddenly an infringement on freedom. What began to matter most in some circles was the prioritizing of individualism over collectivism.

If we were all in this together, then the ties that bound us were tenuous at best. Let us return to the public “we” and what it entails in order to clarify the concept. What does this public “we” have to do with COVID-19 and race? With the realization that black, Latinx, and Native American people and communities have been (proportionally) the hardest hit, one interpretation that emerged is that COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated the inequities that were already present in society. But the connection between racial inequities and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 could only be a revelation for those who have been blissfully or willfully ignorant about how racism has manifested (both in the US and globally) for the last few hundred years.


However, I want to push this interpretation further. I think what we are seeing is a manifestation of “the public we,” and this “public we” doesn’t include everyone. How do I mean? The ancient Greeks had a notion of the polis. The polis was literally delineated with geographic boundaries. The polis exists within the city-state. It is where the business of governing happens, and where deliberation about the public good happens. This is where public obligations to one another are hashed out.

But the Greeks were very clear: the mere fact of being a human who lived, worked, moved, or otherwise existed within the geographic confines of the city-state did not necessarily make one a member of the polis. In addition to clear geographic boundaries, the polis contained socio-cultural boundaries. Some examples of people who were in but not of  the polis were those who were women and/or those who were slaves. The deliberations, obligations, and privileges that were negotiated within the polis among its members only included considerations of others insofar as what happened to the “others” affected the lives, privileges, and habitus of the polis. From this standpoint, it is less surprising that “we have certain obligations to one another” becomes “folks need to take responsibility for themselves” once the numbers revealed who disproportionately gets sick and dies.   

In Adam Serwer’s lovely piece for The Atlantic, “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying,” he refers to the now classic text by philosopher Charles Mills, The Racial Contract. For Serwer, borrowing from Mills, the racial contract is the sometimes tacit, often explicit set of governing norms (agreements) regarding how society will understand itself. Mills argues that rather than a broad social contract in which citizens come together in order to set the terms under which they will consent to be governed, the US operates instead under a racial contract. For Mills, upholding white supremacy in the form of a racial contract is the guiding framework for society. Like the racial contract, the polis is fundamentally exclusionary. The political framework of the polis dictates who’s in, who’s out, and who matters. And these questions, for me, undergird what or who constitutes the public we. Lest anyone think that the racist aspects of the COVID-19 response are anomalous, I want to be clear that one can draw a bright line from the COVID-19 response after the race data became clear to other aspects of society in order to figure out who belongs in the polis.

Carceral punishment is one area of society in which it is clear who is excluded from the polis. In their 2007 paper “Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America,” Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz used national survey data to gauge Americans’ attitudes about the death penalty. It turns out that when white Americans learned that the death penalty discriminated against black people, they became more in favor of it. Peffley and Hurwitz theorize that this attitude can be largely explained by white associations between blackness and crime. However, if one remembers that prisoners in New Orleans were left to die in jails before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the current response to those who are imprisoned in the midst of this pandemic, then the fundamental lack of humanity toward a mostly black and brown prison population cannot be explained by a mere association between blackness and criminality. Instead, what one is seeing is the reality of the polis put into practice.

The other example I want to highlight is the differential regard for wearing of masks in public spaces and how wearing or not wearing of masks is treated. For the moment I will set aside those who view mask requirements as an infringement on their freedom. Instead I want to explore the response to the overwhelmingly white people in overwhelmingly white spaces where people go without masks due to carelessness, laziness, lack of regard for the seriousness of the pandemic, or frankly, an attitude that “only” those who are black, Latinx, or Native American are suffering from this disease, and therefore, COVID-19 is nothing to worry about.

Both still images and cell phone videos, mostly out of New York, have captured police encounters with people who are not wearing masks. It has sparked much discussion in certain corners of social media the stark differences between how the police engage people who are not wearing masks. Meanwhile, black people without masks have been met with police intervention. The most striking video for me was of a black woman in a NY subway station being wrestled to the ground by police officers in front of her child, ostensibly for not wearing a mask. So, another feature of not being part of the polis is the ok’ing of the use of punitive measures to force compliance.

Finally, I want to return to the populations of white people springing up who see mask wearing as an infringement of their freedom. It is not accidental that in the images of these “protests” (I use that word loosely), one also sees Confederate flags, Ku Klux Klan robes, and other symbols of white supremacy. One of the most striking images along these lines is that of a white woman, Gretha Stenger, holding a sign outside the Humboldt County Courthouse in California that reads: Muzzles are for dogs and slaves. I am a free human being. Accompanying the verbiage is a photograph of an Afro-Brazilian enslaved woman, Escrava Anastacia, who is wearing a gag mask and a collar. With this sign, Stenger is revealing where she understands her place in the polis. The place that Stenger understands herself to occupy allows her to assert oneself without fear of reprisal, whether it is on the steps of a courthouse or confronting the mostly black and brown frontline workers who ask one to wear masks before entering essential businesses. Understanding that the polis is not a space of equality, and that it does not pretend to be, can also explain how President Trump and Vice President Pence are often seen without masks while everyone around them wears masks.       

The idea that “we” must look out for one another, is a false idea from the beginning  because it does not reflect the reality of how people of different status occupy space within the polis. Not everyone’s life and well-being matters equally, and in fact, some lives may be sacrificed for the comfort of others. The discourse of the “public we” obscures the fact that even as we are all in the polis, we are not all in the polis.

*Yolonda Yvette Wilson is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Howard University.