Most Americans support the lockdowns and want the government to bring the coronavirus under control before opening up the economy. But “most” is not “all,” and a small minority is eager to end all the restrictions now, even as the virus spreads and COVID-19 caseloads continue to grow.
A small faction of that minority has taken to the streets in vocal opposition to stay-at-home measures and the politicians responsible for them. They carry guns and wave Confederate flags and denounce virus mitigation strategies as “tyranny,” an imposition on their liberty to shop, consume and do as they please.
The vast majority of these protesters — like the vast majority of those who want to prematurely reopen the economy — are white. This is in stark contrast to the victims of COVID-19 (who are disproportionately black and brown), as well as those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic (who are also disproportionately black and brown), as well as those who have been or will be forced to work — or work more — as a result of reopening (the service workers and laborers who are again disproportionately black and brown).
It’s true that not every racial disparity speaks to some deeper dynamic of race and racism. But this one does. I don’t think you can separate the vehemence of anti-lockdown protesters from their whiteness, nor do I think we can divorce their demands to “reopen” the economy from the knowledge that many of those most affected belong to other racial groups. It’s not so much that they’re showing racial animus (although some are), but that their conception of what it means to be “free” is, at its root, tied tightly to their racial identity.
In a 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” legal scholar Cheryl Harris described the development of white racial identity in detail and explained how it took on privileges and benefits that marked it as an asset with social, political and economic value in the context of a slave society:
“Because whites could not be enslaved or held as slaves, the racial line between white and black was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property. White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being an object of property.
“Whiteness,” Harris continued, “was the characteristic, the property of free human beings.” To be white was to have control over oneself and one’s labor. It was to be autonomous and subject to no one’s will but one’s own. If, for example, Thomas Jefferson could not support emancipation despite seeing the basic injustice of slavery, it was in part because of self-interest, in part become of fear (“We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go”) and in part because he couldn’t imagine black people as members of the polity on account of their experience as slaves. It marked them as inferior and, in some sense, fundamentally unfree. “This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,” Jefferson notoriously wrote in his 1785 book, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
The tie between whiteness, freedom and autonomy would grow stronger in the 19th century, during the Jacksonian era, when universal white male suffrage was paired with the strengthening of slave society in the South and, in the 1850s, the outright denial of black citizenship rights.
Freedom from domination and control is one aspect of the meaning of whiteness. The other aspect, in a kind of ideological inversion, is the right to control the presence and the lives of nonwhites. To be white in antebellum America, for instance, was to be able to enslave Africans and expropriate native land. It was, as Harris notes, the right to exclude as well as the right to discipline; to punish those who violated the terms of the racial order.
This dynamic is present throughout American history, whether in westward expansion — understood as the extension of white control over native land, including the violent displacement of native peoples — or in the rise of lynchings at the turn of the 20th century, when ordinary white men claimed the right to inflict lethal violence on blacks (and others) who transgressed racial boundaries. You can see it in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the “sundown towns” that dotted the Midwest in the middle of the 20th century. You could even place the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery — a young African American man pursued by two white men while jogging through a middle-class neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, and then shot to death by one of them — in this same context.
If whiteness has meant the right to control and to be free from control, then it is easy to see how racial identity might influence the reaction to the lockdowns among a certain subset of white Americans.
More than just burdensome, the restrictions become an intolerable violation of the social contract as these Americans understand it. They run against the meaning of their racial identity, of the freedom and autonomy it is supposed to signify. And they resolve the violation by asserting the other aspect of white freedom, the right of control.
You can see this play out on the ground, in the protests, and you can see it play out on the national stage. President Donald Trump has both encouraged anti-lockdown protesters — using the language of liberation to do so — and issued an executive order bringing meatpacking facilities under the purview of the Defense Production Act, which would allow him to force meatpacking workers — again, a disproportionately black and brown workforce — back on the job despite the threat of infection, illness and death.
Likewise, when Rebecca Bradley, a Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin, compared the state’s stay-at-home order Tuesday to Japanese internment during World War II, she was making a statement about who deserves autonomy and who doesn’t.
The great irony, of course, is that this conception of freedom, situated within racial hierarchy and meant to justify deprivation and inequality, has always been impoverished when compared with an expansive, inclusive vision of what it means to be free. And in the particular context of a deadly pandemic, the demand to be free of mutual obligation is, in essence, a demand to be free to die and threaten those around you with illness and death. Most Americans, including most white Americans, have rejected this freedom of the grave. But among the ones who haven’t are the people leading our government, which means that this “freedom” remains a powerful — and dangerous — force to be reckoned with.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.