Is it masks that are polarizing the country, or is it White supremacy? From Walmart to Costco, people in the United States are applying their constitutional freedom card as an excuse to throw raging fits for not wanting to wear a mask. White supremacy isn't easily defined by a Confederate flag flying-tiki torch carrying-proud boy. It is more complex and sophisticated than that. White supremacy is conscious and unconscious ideas about White superiority and entitlement; hence, people feeling a brazen reaction when asked to wear a mask for the sake of others. Equally important, this superiority complex can be internalized and easily triggered by anyone who has assimilated to U.S. culture. Critical race scholar Frances Lee Ansley breaks down White supremacy as "a political, economic, and cultural system in which Whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources... and relations of White dominance and non-White subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings."
These tantrums are unmasking the entitlement and privilege reenacted daily in our social settings, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This intention of "you can't tell me what to do. I tell you what to do'' is connected to a long history of domination and control masked behind the idea of freedom.
People are dying by the tens of thousands because of this superiority complex and inept leadership. Since late March, President Trump has been pushing for the idea of packing churches and restarting the economy, knowing lives will be lost. Locally, some small businesses in the Spokane area are adhering to the federal government, but coincidentally telling state government officials to tread lightly, keeping their businesses open during the stay-at-home orders. Nevertheless, consciously or not, their resistance in the name of the economy is racially charged. The evidence shows that those choosing to ignore health experts comes at the expense of Black, Indigenous, people of color and immigrant communities. The Spokane Regional Health District states that these particular communities of color are more susceptible to the virus because they are a large part of the essential workforce. Not to mention their living circumstances, underlying health conditions, and distrust because of language barriers or citizenship status.
It's difficult to have faith in a system when back in March, after downplaying the novel virus, the Trump administration finally declared a national emergency. Meanwhile, when mainstream media began to report that Black and Latinx communities were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, the crisis ceased to exist. Adam Serwer from the Atlantic writes, "White Americans are also suffering, but the perception that the coronavirus is largely a Black and Brown problem licenses elites to dismiss its impact." This immediately resulted in Rush Limbaugh, who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to chime in, "If you dare criticize the mobilization to deal with this, you're going to be immediately tagged as a racist."
We've seen this gaslighting before with the politicization of Obamacare. Many White voters, who didn't know it was also called the Affordable Care Act, would rather see its demise because it gives them the illusion of protecting their individual right to do what they want. Scholar and author of the book Dying of Whiteness Jonathan M. Metzl claims, "White backlash politics gave certain White populations the sensation of winning, particularly by upending the gains of minorities and liberals; yet the victories came at a steep cost." People would rather die, as Metzl reveals in his book, than to accept Obamacare in order to maintain White America's investment atop of an imaginary racial hierarchy.
These strategies aren't new. Divide and conquer has long been a technique that can be traced back to the first colonial rebellion in 1676. Bacon's Rebellion consisted of a militia of both Black and White indentured servants and Black enslaved who captured and burned down Jamestown, challenging the ruling class. Legal scholar Michell Alexander explains, "The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of [indentured servants] and slaves... In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more Black slaves." These mechanisms to create a wedge between Whiteness and the other can also be linked back to slave codes of 1705. Slave holders would punish, even execute an enslaved person for rebelling, and be granted full immunity. Today, this state-sanctioned violence can be traced to the killing of unarmed Black people. Additionally, immigrant communities are feeling the burden of domination and control through policing, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement train citizens to target and physically apprehend them.
As of this moment, there are 3.5 million people infected with COVID-19, and almost 140,000 have died from it nationwide. Locally, more than 2,000 have been diagnosed and 44 people have perished in Spokane County. The numbers are rising. Yet, people are still refusing to wear masks in public despite evidence showing that covering your face helps flatten the curve. This willful ignorance is grounded in White superiority and entitlement, and Black, Indigenous, people of color are suffering because of it. And so are White people. The late literary genius and civil rights activist James Baldwin said, "People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster." Until we are collectively able to fully understand that we are all in this together, and respectfully wear our masks in public to protect one another, we will be haunted by this monster that has been around since the birth of this nation. ♦
Edmundo M. Aguilar is an adjunct professor of race and culture studies at Eastern Washington University. He earned his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education at Washington State University. His work centers on catalyzing systemic social change through documentary film, and other media forms, in which he critically interrogates identity and oppressive experiences.