Last month, as working-class and poor Black communities across America were ravaged by the coronavirus, working-class and poor White activists hit the streets to protest the economic shutdown that has already left tens of millions of Americans unemployed. According to a recent study, “Black Americans represent 13.4% of the American population, according to the US Census Bureau, but counties with higher black populations account for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths, the study found.” Meanwhile, White Americans congregated in state capitals to protest the economic shutdown that has effectively stopped the World’s economy dead in its tracks.
It is a classic conundrum in American politics: though middle and lower-income people of all races share similar class interests, they are effectively divided along racial fault lines, preventing workers from communicating effectively together and forming coalitions. Meanwhile, the upper classes, surrounded by luxury, actively foment the discord. Divide and conquer. Unfortunately for America, the dynamic is as old as the colonies and therefore baked into the fabric of the body politic. In Caribbean colonies of the Spanish and French Empires, the terms Big Whites and Small Whites came to denote the members of the dual economic and social spheres of the of White people. When needed, the Big Whites could effectively carve off the Small Whites from the Blacks and other people of color in order to kneecap any chance of unified unrest. The strategy allowed the Big Whites to rule the Americas for hundreds of years until the age of Enlightenment ushered in the Revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In America, we do not use those terms to understand the cleavage between the Whites and the Blacks of the lower classes, but the terminology is apt. There are indeed the upper classes, predominantly composed of White aristocrats. And then there are the lower classes, composed of Whites, Blacks, Native peoples, and other people of color. When the upper classes feel threatened economically or politically, they need only foment racial discord among the lower classes to reassert their grip on power.
The coronavirus has laid bare the latent structure of the Big and Small White divide in the various forms of the racial bias that are applied to the lower classes people. Almost as soon as the financial elite of America fully comprehended the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on Black communities, the medical guidance regarding the wearing of face masks and social distancing, not to mention the orders to stay at home, became the foulest of tyrannies. The Big Whites needed to eat and make more money, so Small Whites and Blacks needed to go back to work in the factories, the meatpacking plants, and the warehouses despite the unsafe conditions. The nationwide protests 10 days ago at companies like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and others went almost unreported, perhaps because staying home to protest safely is not as visible as hitting the streets. Just yesterday, Elon Musk announced he would be moving Tesla headquarters out of California after authorities requested that he wait a few days longer for them to approve his plan to restart production of his Tesla cars. The message from the wealthy has been clear: the coronavirus only affects Black communities, so it is not worth worrying about.
But in order to deflect the tide of rising resentment among the lower classes that their lives are being thrown away while celebrities sing songs from their mansions and Nancy Pelosi stocks her freezer full of ice cream, Trump the Big Whites of the Republican party have fomented the sort of nationalist outrage that Black people know all to well is just a sign of things to come if the trajectory of events continues to unfold along racial lines. Since rallying the Right with a series of tweets to “liberate” various states, Trump’s base launched the Reopen America Protests which have grown and spread among the Small White communities of America, where so relatively few people have died. The Small Whites don’t see the staggering death rates of the Black community as their problem. The Small Whites see their problem as jobs, and summer vacations, and getting back to “normal.” It is no accident that the Reopen America Protesters are made up of predominantly White people. When White people openly carry guns into a state capitol building, no one minds, though some very civil debates have been had about passing laws restricting such actions in the future. If Black people had openly carried guns into a state capitol building, the debate would not have been so civil. “This is identity politics, this is not COVID-19 as an actual issue,” said Dr. Samuel K. Roberts, director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies and an epidemiologist. “First of all, if you look at who these people are, I don’t know many black folks of any political stripe that would want to be in that crowd. These are the same people who called Obama all sorts of names, racist epithets, a lot of them overlap with the Tea Party, which was a very racially charged movement,” Roberts said. “Nothing about this movement is really black friendly.”
The racial analysis of the Reopen America protests helps explain why, as some in the commentariat have pointed out recently, the cause of the working classes, so often thought of as the domain of Left-wing movements a la Bernie Sanders’ campaign, seems all of a sudden to have been usurped by the Right. The solution to the commentariat’s puzzle is that the coronavirus pandemic has become twisted into, not just a partisan issue, but a racial issue, when in reality it is at its core a class issue. While workers of all colors have been striking for safer working conditions, while Black working-class communities suffer and die, the problems of the White working class are given precedence. If only the working classes could be reunited, they might see their common plight, and protest together for more support of every kind from the elites in their mansions.
It is amid this backdrop that video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery, and unarmed Black man, being murdered by two White men, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, in Georgia this past February. Without the video, it is unlikely that charges would have been brought against the two men. But this past Thursday, they were taken into custody and charged with murder. The case has sparked outrage across the country and world, and is likely to stoke racial tensions at a time when unity is required to effectively save the working classes and the poor from a disease that does not discriminate on the basis of either class or race.
As the Arbery case plays out, the Big Whites of America are more than likely going to continue to ignore the plight of those whose lives they deem to be expendable in their pursuit of comfort. Already, Trump and the GOP are attacking the US postal system ahead of the November elections because they know that their attempts to quash minority votes at the polls will not work if the election is held by absentee mail-in ballot. Trump’s chances in the Presidential race and McConnell’s chances of retaining his majority in the Senate diminish greatly so long as the US postal system remains a well-functioning organ of the government. Other such machinations are sure to follow.
Of course, the Right is prepared for accusations of racial bias with their familiar dismissals. As Adam Serwer wrote recently, “on April 7, major outlets began reporting that preliminary data showed that black and Latino Americans were being disproportionately felled by the coronavirus. That afternoon, Rush Limbaugh complained, ‘If you dare criticize the mobilization to deal with this, you’re going to be immediately tagged as a racist.’”
This time, at least, the tag fits.