For many people, racism is one of the most frightening and dreaded accusations. They avoid it at all costs, which has the unfortunate consequence of suppressing open debate, independent thinking, facts, and truth. In fighting the current crisis, this can lead to devastating consequences if we are not careful.
For instance, when Trump placed travel restrictions on China, many accused him of racism. As soon as I heard it, I thought it was a good idea. In retrospect, I believe it contributed significantly to flattening the curve, especially for the West coast. It slowed down the rate of infection coming in from China, which is why the US was the last developed nation to get the virus. We got it from Europe, not directly from China. The travel restrictions bought us about a month of time.
For Democrats, their hatred of Trump distorts any ideas he suggests. I agree that he has done only a few things right, but we have to be able to recognize the right ideas by setting aside our personal feelings about where they came from. Even if Trump’s motivation was racist, in an emergency, the only thing that matters is the correctness of the solution. We cannot afford to be ideological.
If China itself did not impose a travel ban on Wuhan, it would have spread to the rest of China much faster, and they would have lost control of it. This would have meant no medical equipment or supplies for the rest of the world. Travel ban works. After all, the reason we have such a thing as “pandemic” is because of modern transportation. Before the advent of international travel, there was no such thing. There were only local epidemics.
A careless accusation of racism can lead to devastating consequences, including many unnecessary deaths.
Here is another worrisome example from Ibram X. Kendi. In his article for The Atlantic, he calls many black leaders “ignorant” because they saw their communities not taking the social distancing measures seriously and urged them to heed the warnings. He argues that it is only a myth that black people did not take them seriously, and he based this argument on the survey conducted by Pew Research. They asked people of different races if the coronavirus outbreak is a “major” threat to their personal health. 46% of black people answered yes, while only 21% of white people did. He concludes from this that black people took the social distancing measures more seriously than white people did, but this is not given.
One research by a team of psychologists concludes, “It seems likely that fear arousal may have inhibiting as well as facilitating effects on assimilation of protection motivation and can lead to avoidant coping.” A fear tactic can work as long as people feel they can do something about it, but if they feel it’s beyond their control, they can deny the threat and behave against their own interest.
In the same Pew survey, take a look at how people of different educational levels responded. 35% of people who have high school degrees or less felt the virus posed a major risk to their health, whereas only 19% of college graduates did. We know from research that educational level correlates to healthy behavior.
This survey result for the educational level is consistent with the theory that people do not necessarily respond to fear appropriately. It is unlikely that those with a high school diploma or less took more precautions than college graduates did.
But still, psychology is a soft science; we cannot answer these questions definitively. My point here isn’t that Kendi is wrong, but that he could be wrong. If so, calling those community leaders “ignorant” can have grave consequences. Next time, they might not urge their communities.
Now, let’s think about other consequences if Kendi is wrong.
If black people did indeed take more precautions than white people did, for the second wave, or for another pandemic, what would be the point of trying harder? They would likely feel the situation to be hopeless, and would not modify their behavior as they feel powerless, which can cause countless, unnecessary deaths. And, the Pew survey would once again show the same result.
What if his conclusion is wrong and the other community leaders were right? That is, let’s say, hypothetically (not saying this is what happened), black people did not take the social distancing measures seriously. It would mean that they can learn from this pandemic and take them seriously next time. If they know that they didn’t take them seriously, they would feel confident that they can do better next time. However, if they were to become convinced of Kendi’s narrative, they would feel helpless because they’ve already tried better than any other racial group.
If the reason black people did not heed the warning is that they felt hopless, it could mean that this is also a result of systemic racism in America. If the government, police, and healthcare system have persistently treated black people unfairly, it is only natural that they feel they have no control over the threat of the virus. It would make sense that they had to deny the threat in order to cope with their anxiety. What if this narrative is closer to the truth? I think you can see the danger of Kendi’s accusation.
Different communities within the US had different reasons they responded to the threat of the virus. In New York City, Staten Island has the highest infection rate despite being the most spacious borough (in the same amount of space where Brooklyn has five people living, Staten Island only has one) and whitest (77.6% white). And, my analysis of Google’s mobile phone data shows that Staten Island performed the worst in adhering to the social distancing measure. Is that “blaming” white people? No, because Manhattan performed the best, and it too is dominantly white. Likewise, the ratios of infections and deaths for blacks are proportionate to the general population in Minnesota despite it being one of the worst states for racial inequality. The death rate in Florida is proportionate too. If the differences were caused by biological factors, we would expect the disproportionate rates to be consistent across all states. Not all black communities were the same.
There is a reasonable theory that it was harder for Italians to adopt social distancing measures because they tend to express their affection physically. Is that “blaming” Italians?
It’s easier for Japanese because there is no custom of hugging or shaking hands. Does that mean they are superior for not hugging or shaking hands?
Just because different communities reacted to the threat differently, doesn’t mean they did anything right or wrong. Scaring people with the accusation of racism would suppress open discussions of what would allow us to improve our social distancing measures, which can lead to unnecessary loss of lives. Let’s not jump to conclusions just because something feels or sounds racist.
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