(Pictured: Bakari W., Age 21, Washington, D.C.)
We can conceptualize the disease of American racism in two ways: as a pandemic affecting a population of individuals, or as a sickness infecting the collective body of the country. These two lenses call for two self-administered treatments, both of them necessary, distinct, and intertwined.
Thinking of racism as a pandemic requires us to consider how individuals can proliferate the contagion and what individuals can do to mitigate the damage. Like coughing or sneezing, white supremacist ideas are both a symptom of racism and a vector for spreading it. The idea that Black people are inherently criminal and that their presence warrants suspicion are what caused the McMichaels’ to suspect a jogger of burglary and follow him in their car. The idea that Black people are violent is what caused them to approach him with shotguns drawn. The idea that any Black lives deemed suspicious are forfeit is what allowed them to murder Ahmaud Arbery, seemingly unaware of the injustice they’d just committed. It takes an exceptional amount of entitlement to think that a birdwatcher asking you to leash your dog warrants enough indignation for you to threaten him with state violence. But did Amy Cooper truly, actually think she was in the right? Or did she just think she deserved to be? Could she even tell the difference?
The best remedies for a pandemic, as we’ve seen, are awareness and prevention. Awareness is required because, from within their warped perspectives, the McMichaelses and Amy Cooper acted rationally. In the cases mentioned above, signs of the sickness were on obvious display. An individual’s treatment can start, when they not only acknowledge the existence of the disease in the first place, but also recognize that they themselves are presenting symptoms. And in milder cases, those symptoms are even more difficult to detect. Widespread education about how white supremacist perceptions of black people became mainstream is essential to shattering these warped perspectives and curing those already infected. Combating racist rhetoric inoculates the rest of the population, making us all less susceptible and preventing further spread. It is all of our duties as individuals to be aware and take preventative measures, for our sake and the sake of those around us.
But as necessary as awareness and prevention are on an individual level, we must also examine the context in which we as a nation are responding to this disease to finally cure it. The white supremacist ideas currently causing the most visible symptoms of this country’s illness don’t exist in a vacuum. There are pre-existing conditions in America which ensure that even if one form of racism goes into remission, another has already metastasized. That even once we’ve developed antibodies for one instance, another has already evolved. The biological structures that form America haven’t been working as they should, so we can’t keep up with problems as they arise. Bias in policing and the criminal justice system, the legacy of de facto and de jure housing discrimination, and the lingering effects of slavery all clearly demonstrate the role that America’s institutions have played in keeping it sick. In order to cure racism we must address the inequity that our ways of operation have caused, and we must change the way we handle justice, economics, education, housing, and health going forward. A quadruple bypass surgery can only be so effective if we go back to an unhealthy diet immediately afterward. So we must pick up where Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement left off, and realize that the work was never over.