First came the explicit racism, with people pointing fingers and slurs at any Asian they deemed to either symbolize or literally carry COVID-19. This was probably the most predictable and obvious social consequence of a pandemic tied to China — low-hanging fruit for racists, white nationalists and everyday morons obsessed with the idea of America under attack.
But there’s something more insidious blooming as the pandemic crawls on, eating up weeks and months with no clear end date. For a while there, it seemed like the country had absorbed a shock big enough to rattle the whole institution, and all of its trappings, to its studs. Much was said about how the tragedy would bring Americans together. Instead, we’re watching COVID merely pry apart the weak stitches holding fresh wounds together.
Few wounds are as fresh as the violence that people of color face from white faces who, implicitly or otherwise, see their presence as a threat to their own. And under the stresses of a pandemic, white rage is flexing and swelling again — a return of the status quo, fueled by an unceasingly anxious world.
It’s hard to look at the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia as anything but the result of long simmering racist tensions in a place full of suspicion. What else do we call a 25-year-old Black man being accosted and shot by two white men with no cause for the violence other than jogging past their truck while looking young and Black? (Federal hate crime charges are being considered.)
How else do we consider the tenor of an all-white mob, led by a white off-duty cop, confronting a single Black mom and her kid in the middle of the night and jamming her door open while armed and dangerous? Are we seriously supposed to think it truly a good-faith citizen investigation of a missing girl? In the middle of the North Carolina night with a faceless mob and shotguns, unable to take “no” for an answer?
What do we make of the disgruntled white man who wore a Klan hood to the supermarket in a San Diego suburb? What of the right-wing Nazi chud named Dusty Hart who decided that the Klan incident was mere inspiration for him to wear a swastika flag on his mask to a supermarket in the same town? (He remains on Facebook, calling other people Nazis for calling him a Nazi).
Even incidents that seemingly have nothing to do with race just reek of the paranoid rhetoric that wafts off every dog-whistle white racist who “wants their country back” and claims that COVID restrictions are unconstitutional oppression. Let’s not kid ourselves, here: They can say it’s all about COVID, but white dudes crowding into a state capitol (or a fucking Subway) while cosplaying with tactical vests and rifles is obviously more about the threat of violence than a plea for policy reform. It all falls into a spectrum of behavior motivated by white nationalist rage, even if nobody wants to call it that.
The spectrum has been growing for some time, too. White nationalist violence, aimed at individuals as well as institutions, is on the rise and has been for more than a decade. Lonely young white men continue to kill en masse in schools and other public venues, often aiming at Muslims, Latinos, Jews and Black people. Toxic nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have emerged more visible than ever, organizing marches and rallies and gaining mainstream press coverage for it. All these viruses are growing in a petri dish of soaring wealth inequality, America’s lost dominance as a cultural and political powerhouse, systemic racism, personal entitlement and a massive, throbbing victim complex.
Adding the tension of a pandemic and government “overreach” into that dish is a perfect way to accelerate the growth of white unrest. As author Jonathan Metzl documents in his book Dying of Whiteness, a big swath of right-wing white America — i.e., largely the people you see screaming about reopening the country right now — is literally willing to die because they refuse to bend dogmatic beliefs about how the world works. Many will often vote against their own interests and along racial and political lines instead.
“I found very clear evidence of the ways that fears of immigrants, fears that minority people were usurping resources, were shaping policy agendas in these regions,” Metzl told Vox. “Working-class white populations are caught in this peculiar place. They could look at the wealthy persons or corporations or donors who were actually causing policies that were worsening their lives, or they could look at the people they believed were taking away their resources. And they chose, electorally, to look at the latter — and that’s hurting nearly everybody.”
Metzl is careful to say his research wasn’t about individual racism, but it’s fairly easy to see how some major biases continue to subconsciously shape conservative white rage, not just policy. And the pandemic has just made all those biases so much more obvious; it’s part of the reason why there’s mounting concern that young teens cooped up at home are being redpilled and radicalized during quarantine. Erratic, violent behavior amid COVID isn’t unique to an ethnicity, certainly; a black security officer getting shot by two black men over a mandatory mask dispute puts that in tragic relief. But experts are warning that the pandemic is “the perfect storm” for racist agitators, whether that’s President Donald Trump or a guy in a supermarket with a swastika mask, to incite people and feelings and ideologies.
Given that a lot of white racists don’t even comprehend that they’re racist, we’re left with a dead-end and the usual shrugging advice on how, if at all, we can address the 243-year-old elephant in the room.
We’ve watched this play out so many times in the past, in places like Charlottesville and with innocent victims of color like John Crawford III and Philandro Castile. Meanwhile, Black and brown communities continue to be disproportionately damaged by the pandemic — both in terms of health and finances. This is the backdrop that informs all of white America’s screaming and shouting, all the flexing of racism and potential violence and real violence, all under the dangerous belief that doing so is self-care and solution wrapped into one.
I think of how the end of the Civil War brought not resolution and relief but a swell of attacks from the Ku Klux Klan — and ever-mounting distrust from poor whites of poor blacks. We’re in a world-changing disaster, and we’re supposed to share that trauma as a country. Instead, the darkest times are pushing white America to reprise its darkest habits.
Consider it COVID’s worst side effect.