REVIEW COORDINATOR: Taylor Mills

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May 11th, 2020 10:52:58 am

State Racism, Social Justice, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Abstract

COVID-19 has exposed the marginalization and discrimination of various groups from the elderly, to the immunocompromised, to the poor, to women, to racial minorities, among others. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s account of state racism and biopower, I examine the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities have been made more vulnerable by the current pandemic. Importantly, while the bulk of the paper focuses on issues of race, it will nevertheless have broader implications for thinking about other forms of marginalization; and for thinking about ways of achieving social justice on multiple fronts.

During one of his daily COVID-19 press briefings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked that, “Everyone is subject to this virus. It is the great equalizer. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are. I don’t care how young, how old. This virus is the great equalizer.”(1) This discourse of equality and togetherness has been common throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From scientists to politicians to celebrities, the rallying cry of ‘we are all in this together’ serves as an essential reminder that not only does the virus pose a threat to everyone, but that only together can we address it.(2) And, on the one hand, these remarks are entirely correct. The virus itself is not picking and choosing its host based on race, gender, class or any other demographic. Moreover, since the start of the pandemic, everyone’s life has been impacted by its social, political and economic effects. It is for these reasons that we must band together to stop the spread and ‘flatten the curve.’ Against this ‘invisible enemy,’ we either win or lose together. It is a nice, even uplifting, sentiment in these chaotic times.

However, discourses of equality have a way of being misleading. Since the beginning, the US proclaimed itself as a nation that stood for liberty and justice for all. A land wherein all could freely pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, this ‘all’ was never inclusive, certainly not to women and racial minorities. Unfortunately, the same is true with regards COVID-19. It is not the great equalizer. The outbreak has done much to expose the marginalization and discrimination of various groups from the elderly, to the immunocompromised, to the poor, to women, to racial minorities, among others.(3) For this paper, I will focus specifically on issues related to race and ethnicity. Since the outbreak’s inception, members of the media and politicians, including President Trump, has insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “Wuhan Virus.” This, in turn, has led to increased discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans.(4) Moreover, racial disparities with regards access to COVID-19 treatment as well as deaths have been constant throughout this crisis (e.g. the death rate for Black Chicagoans is six times higher than for White Chicagoans).(5) To examine these issues further, I turn to the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s account of state racism and biopower. Importantly, while the bulk of the paper focuses on issues of race, it will nevertheless have broader implications for thinking about other forms of marginalization; and for thinking about ways of achieving social justice on multiple fronts.

Foucault on Biopower and State Racism

To begin, what is biopower? For Foucault, biopower refers to the power over life and death. Historically, this was exercised via the right of the sovereign “to take life or let live.”(6) Under their own discretion, the sovereign could seize property, enslave others and even kill as they chose. Those that were spared the sovereign’s sword were allowed to live. During the contemporary period, Foucault argues that sovereign power has been largely supplanted by biopower.(7) Biopower operates via a series of policies and social norms designed to exercise control and regulation over individual bodies and populations. Instead of eliminating life, biopower is concerned with improving, maximizing and optimizing it. The modern techniques of biopower may include state-sponsored hygiene and health campaigns, social and cultural norms of cleanliness, as well as regulations on abortion rights and end-of-life care. Even the current shelter-in-place orders, social distancing practices and immigration restrictions fall within the domain of biopower. All of these are intended to maintain the strength and health of society, and in doing so, ensure its longevity.

But, how does the state decide what counts as ‘optimization’? And if Foucault is right, then why are so many groups currently facing extra challenges from the pandemic? For Foucault, ‘optimizing’ life is more than just maximizing the life expectancy or minimizing the risk of disease; it is also concerned with which lives are able to survive. Biopower accomplishes this by making distinctions between a ‘superclass’ (or ‘super race’) whose lives are viewed as improving the state, and a ‘subclass’ (or ‘subrace’) who make it worse. Part of the task of optimization, then, is to mitigate the threat of these ‘abnormal’ or ‘denigrate’ populations, whether abroad or domestically. But, how can a state designed to promote life ever justify killing? For Foucault it achieves this in two ways: it can either justify violence by designating a population as a threat to the state (e.g. police violence during the War on Drugs, or military action during the War on Terror). Or, alternatively, it can decide to “disallow [life] to the point of death.”(8) For Foucault, today, most residents or citizens are not killed by state executions. Rather, they die because the state fails to safeguard and protect their life, whether by failing to provide medical coverage or a safe neighborhood, or even designating a group as a threat or menace to society. All these actions increase the group’s likelihood of dying.

Biopower kills via a system of exclusion and vulnerability. To establish these systems, Foucault argues that the state must become racist. As Chloë Taylor explains, “biopower is almost necessarily racist, since racism, broadly constructed, is an ‘indispensable precondition’ that grants the state the power to kill. Under such conditions, eradicating sub-groups of that population is perceived as a justifiable form of managing and protecting a people”(9) Importantly, this is not exclusively an ethnic racism, but a “state racism” or “racism against the abnormal.”(10) This involves labelling groups as inferior and dangerous, whether due to their race/ethnic, sexuality, sex/gender, class, etc. On this construal, the stereotyping of Black people as ‘criminals,’ of Hispanics as ‘illegal immigrants,’ and of Muslims as ‘terrorists’ is racist. So too are the comments made by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick regarding letting some people, mostly the elderly, die for the sake of ‘reopening’ the country.(11) In each case, it amounts to willing designating a specific population as less desirable (or undesirable) in order to the protect the state. As such, whereas sovereign power was the right to “take life and let live,” the objective of the state now is to “to make live or let die.”(12)

COVID-19 and State Racism

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to both expose existing practices of state racism, as well as institute new forms. With regards racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps the clearest example is the rise of anti-Asian racism. This has been due, in part, to the constant and deliberate mislabeling of COVID-19 as “China Virus” or “Wuhan Virus.” The term has been widely criticized as promoting the false view that all Chinese and Chinese Americans are likely carriers of the Novel Coronavirus.(13) Yet, its defenders have alleged that the phrase is meant to hold the Chinese government accountable for not alerting the global community about the virus sooner.(14) Legislation, such as Stop COVID Act, has even been proposed to allow US-Americans to sue the Chinese government for damages incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.(15) This discourse has been further exacerbated by the political rhetoric of China as a hostile, communist country. In this way, the country of China has been designated as a threat to the health and survival of the US.

Such designations have also been applied to the Chinese people. As Senator Tom Cotton claimed in a Fox News interview, the US is currently training China’s “brightest minds,” only to have them return to China and further their scientific and technological breakthroughs. In response, he argued that, “We need to take a very hard look at the visas that we give the Chinese nationals to come to the United States to study, especially in the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.”(16) Here, the Chinese people are rendered potential enemies who take educational opportunities away from US citizens; and then, return to China to ‘compete’ and ‘defeat’ the US. In this way, they weaken the state, and so must be excluded – under biopower, China and its people are now threats. Citizenship, however, is an unobservable characteristic; so, Chinese Americans, and Asian-Americans more broadly, become entangled in this anti-China rhetoric. Although Asians are often portrayed as ‘model minorities, as Emily Lee argues, within the US, they are always considered “forever foreigners.”(17) That is, while the achievements of Asian Americans might be praised by politicians and the media, Asian Americans are viewed as never truly assimilating into US-American culture.(18) They remain Asian first, and US-American second. As a racialized Other, their protection always highly contingent.

Unsurprisingly, other racial groups have likewise experienced COVID-19 related racism. On behalf of the Association of Black Cardiologists, Norrisa Haynes, Lisa Cooper and Michelle Albert find that, in the US, there are higher rates of hospitalization, deaths and positive cases among Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.(19) Moreover, according to the CDC, because Black and Brown communities tend to be more densely populated, it is more difficult to practice social distancing. Such communities also tend to be farther away from grocery stores and medical facilities, thereby making it more difficult to seek medical care and/or purchase enough food to remain at home for long periods of time.(20) Additionally, the CDC notes that essential workers are disproportionately nonwhite: Hispanics constitute approximately fifty-three of agricultural workers; and Blacks compromise 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses.(21) In each of these cases, the vulnerability of communities of color is the byproduct of a series of legal precedent and social practices, most notably discrimination in healthcare and employment, as well as the legacy of residential segregation. Over time, this serves to create conditions wherein communities of color are disproportionately exposed to harm and even death. Importantly, this is taken as the norm. It is expected that such communities will have worse health outcomes and a higher mortality rate. From that vantage point, the discourse of ‘COVID-19, the great equalizer’ makes more sense. It is not that each of us is equally worse off; but that, relative to the norm, each of us is worse off than we were. We are equal insofar as our respective ‘normal’ conditions have been disrupted.

State Racism and Social Justice

So, what can be done about this? For Foucault, while it is impossible to completely eradicate power relations, resistance is always possible. This can take multiple forms from highlighting the extra vulnerabilities of nonwhite communities, to emphasizing the essential role people of color play in our society, to openly advocating for more protections and opportunities for those communities. The present pandemic offers many examples that highlight the differences between state’s response towards Whites and nonwhites. For instance, many have noted that the ‘reopen’ protests, which have been predominately attended by Whites, have met far less police presence and violence than protests consisting of mostly people of color. As Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib put it, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff.”(22) The irony of racial divide of the ‘reopen’ protests is that people of color do not have the luxury of sheltering-in-place. As Kailee Scale, the managing director of Black Lives Matter Global Network, Black people “are the essential workers that keep the country going; we are the mail carriers, delivery personnel, transportation providers, and hospital workers. We cannot just #stayhome.”(23) As such, despite the hardship, COVID-19 may serve as an important moment for social justice initiatives.

To such initiatives, Foucault’s account of state racism offers an important insight – namely, that, at its core, the issue is vulnerability. While it may manifest itself differently among the various nonwhite racial groups, their marginalization is tied to their designation as a subrace population. Importantly, however, while the focus of this paper has been ethnic racism, Foucault’s account is broader. Ageism against the elderly, ableism against the immunocompromised and sexism against women are all acts of state racism. As such, state racism can served as a fulcrum for social justice initiatives based around, what Myshia Cherry refers to as, “vulnerable solidarity.” As she writes, “Vulnerable solidarity is solidarity that is formed based on the vulnerability that we all face as citizens to be targeted and/or affected by state racism and state violence.”(24) While the threat is actualized in the case of the subrace, its possibility extends to everyone. After all, the subrace is not a biologically or historically permanent category, it shifts depending on who the state designates as dangerous. Indeed, the designation may even apply to White people, such as those deemed ‘race traitors’ for defending the rights of Black people; or, currently, to White US-Americans being denied a stimulus check because they are married to an undocumented immigrant.(25) The possibility of facing state racism, then, is a far better equalizer than COVID-19; and, because of this, is a far better motivator for collective action and social justice.

Bibliography

Aila Slisco, “Trump Reelection Campaign Asks for 10,000 Donations to Help President ‘Hold China Accountable for their Lies,’ Newsweek, April 14, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/trump-relection-campaign-asks-10000-donations-help-president-hold-china-accountable-their-lies-1497906

António Guterres, “We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery,” United Nations, April 23, 2020. https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/we-are-all-together-human-rights-and-covid-19-response-and

Bryan Armen Graham, “ ‘Swastikas and Nooses’: Governor Slams ‘Racism’ of Michigan Lockdown Protest,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Asian Americans Report Over 650 Racist Acts Over Last Week, New Data Says,” NBC News, February 26, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-americans-report-nearly-500-racist-acts-over-last-week-n1169821

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” CDC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

Chloë Taylor, “Biopower” in Foucault: Key Concepts, eds. Dianna Taylor, (London, UK: Routledge, 2014)

Dan Gardner, “Hate Him or Love Him: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Can Teach Us A Lot About How to Speak During a Pandemic,” CNBC, April 6, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/what-new-york-governor-andrew-cuomo-teaches-us-about-how-to-speak-lead-in-coronavirus-pandemic.html

David Matthew, “Sen. Tom Cotton Wants to Ban Chinese Students from Studying Science in the US,” NY Daily News, April 26, 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-tom-cotton-ban-chinese-students-studying-in-us-20200426-uib4wzmjargufflazdcgx4jmfy-story.html 

Emily Lee, “Model Minorities” in 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, eds. Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019)

Felicia Sonmez, “Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Comes Under Fire for Saying Seniors Should ‘Take a Chance’ on their Lives for Sake of Grandchildren During Coronavirus Crisis,” Washington Post, March 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/texas-lt-gov-dan-patrick-comes-under-fire-for-saying-seniors-should-take-a-chance-on-their-own-lives-for-sake-of-grandchildren-during-coronavirus-crisis/2020/03/24/e6f64858-6de6-11ea-b148-e4ce3fbd85b5_story.html

Flynn Meagan. “‘Those Numbers Take Your Breath Away’: Covid-19 is Hitting Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods Much Harder Than Others, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/chicago-racial-disparity-coronavirus/

Jason Hall, “Sen. Blackburn, Others Introduce Act to Hold China Accountable for Coronavirus Spread,” Fox17 Nashville, May 4, 2020, https://fox17.com/news/local/sen-blackburn-others-introduce-act-to-hold-china-accountable-for-coronavirus-spread

Kailee Scales, “Black Lives Matter Global Network Responses to COVID-19 Ethnicity Data,” Blacks Lives Matter, April 9, 2020, https://blacklivesmatter.com/black-lives-matter-global-network-responses-to-covid-19-ethnicity-data/

Lauren Aratani, “‘Coughing While Asian’: Living in Fear as Racism Feeds Off Coronavirus Panic,” The Guardian, March 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism

Martha Henriques, “Why COVID-19 is Different for Men and Women,” BBC, April 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-covid-19-is-different-for-men-and-women

Maryellen Stewart, “Most People Dying from COVID-19 are Old. Don’t Treat Them Just as Statistics,” Vox, April 22, 2020, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/4/22/21228680/coronavirus-covid-19-deaths-old-elderly-people

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, March 1990)

Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Picador, 2003)

Myshia Cherry, “State Racism, State Violence and Vulnerable Solidarity” in The Oxford Handbook on Philosophy and Race, eds. Naomi Zack (New York, NY: Oxford University Press: 2017)

Nicole Narea, “US Citizen Spouses and Children of Unauthorized Immigrants Were Shut Out of Stimulus Relief. Now They’re Suing,” Vox, May 6, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/5/6/21248074/immigrant-citizen-spouse-children-coronavirus-stimulus-checks

Norissa Haynes, Lisa A. Cooper and Michelle A. Albert, “At the Heart of the Matter: Unmasking and Addressing COVID-19’s Toll on Diverse Populations,” Circulation (Preprint), May 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048126

Sarah Kolinovsky, “Some 1.2 Million Americans Won’t Get Stimulus Checks Because They’re Married to Immigrants,” ABC News, May 5, 2020 https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/12-million-americans-stimulus-checks-married-immigrants/story?id=70493620

Footnotes

  1.  Dan Gardner, “Hate Him or Love Him: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Can Teach Us A Lot About How to Speak During a Pandemic,” CNBC, April 6, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/what-new-york-governor-andrew-cuomo-teaches-us-about-how-to-speak-lead-in-coronavirus-pandemic.html
  2.  António Guterres, “We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery,” United Nations, April 23, 2020. https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/we-are-all-together-human-rights-and-covid-19-response-and
  3.  Martha Henriques, “Why COVID-19 is Different for Men and Women,” BBC, April 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-covid-19-is-different-for-men-and-women; Maryellen Stewart, “Most People Dying from COVID-19 are Old. Don’t Treat Them Just as Statistics,” Vox, April 22, 2020, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/4/22/21228680/coronavirus-covid-19-deaths-old-elderly-people
  4.  Lauren Aratani, “‘Coughing While Asian’: Living in Fear as Racism Feeds Off Coronavirus Panic,” The Guardian, March 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism
  5.  Flynn Meagan. “‘Those Numbers Take Your Breath Away’: Covid-19 is Hitting Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods Much Harder Than Others, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/chicago-racial-disparity-coronavirus/
  6.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, March 1990)
  7.  Importantly, for Foucault, power never disappears. Whereas exercises of sovereign power may be less frequent nowadays, it still remains an active form of power. For example, sovereign power is still present in capital punishment.
  8.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, March 1990)
  9.  Chloë Taylor, “Biopower” in Foucault: Key Concepts, eds. Dianna Taylor, (London, UK: Routledge, 2014)
  10.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Picador, 2003)
  11.  Felicia Sonmez, “Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Comes Under Fire for Saying Seniors Should ‘Take a Chance’ on their Lives for Sake of Grandchildren During Coronavirus Crisis,” Washington Post, March 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/texas-lt-gov-dan-patrick-comes-under-fire-for-saying-seniors-should-take-a-chance-on-their-own-lives-for-sake-of-grandchildren-during-coronavirus-crisis/2020/03/24/e6f64858-6de6-11ea-b148-e4ce3fbd85b5_story.html
  12.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, March 1990)
  13.  Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Asian Americans Report Over 650 Racist Acts Over Last Week, New Data Says,” NBC News, February 26, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-americans-report-nearly-500-racist-acts-over-last-week-n1169821
  14.  Aila Slisco, “Trump Reelection Campaign Asks for 10,000 Donations to Help President ‘Hold China Accountable for their Lies,’ Newsweek, April 14, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/trump-relection-campaign-asks-10000-donations-help-president-hold-china-accountable-their-lies-1497906
  15.  Jason Hall, “Sen. Blackburn, Others Introduce Act to Hold China Accountable for Coronavirus Spread,” Fox17 Nashville, May 4, 2020, https://fox17.com/news/local/sen-blackburn-others-introduce-act-to-hold-china-accountable-for-coronavirus-spread
  16.  David Matthew, “Sen. Tom Cotton Wants to Ban Chinese Students from Studying Science in the US,” NY Daily News, April 26, 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-tom-cotton-ban-chinese-students-studying-in-us-20200426-uib4wzmjargufflazdcgx4jmfy-story.html 
  17.  Emily Lee, “Model Minorities” in 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, eds. Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, (Evanston, IL:Northwestern University Press, 2019)
  18.  It is also worth mentioning that the ‘myth of Model Minority’ also serves an important function within biopower. By emphasizing of the success of a non-White racial group, the state is able to minimize its responsibility for the social, political and economic inequalities between Whites and Black people. By shifting attention away from the structural and institutional realities of ant-Black racism, it serves to further marginalize and victimize Black people.
  19.  Norissa Haynes, Lisa A. Cooper and Michelle A. Albert, “At the Heart of the Matter: Unmasking and Addressing COVID-19’s Toll on Diverse Populations,” Circulation (Preprint), May 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048126
  20.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” CDC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html
  21.   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” CDC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html
  22.  Bryan Armen Graham, “ ‘Swastikas and Nooses’: Governor Slams ‘Racism’ of Michigan Lockdown Protest,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism
  23.  Kailee Scales, “Black Lives Matter Global Network Responses to COVID-19 Ethnicity Data,” Blacks Lives Matter, April 9, 2020, https://blacklivesmatter.com/black-lives-matter-global-network-responses-to-covid-19-ethnicity-data/
  24.  Myshia Cherry, “State Racism, State Violence and Vulnerable Solidarity” in The Oxford Handbook on Philosophy and Race, eds. Naomi Zack (New York, NY: Oxford University Press: 2017)
  25.  Sarah Kolinovsky, “Some 1.2 Million Americans Won’t Get Stimulus Checks Because They’re Married to Immigrants,” ABC News, May 5, 2020 https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/12-million-americans-stimulus-checks-married-immigrants/story?id=70493620; Nicole Narea, “US Citizen Spouses and Children of Unauthorized Immigrants Were Shut Out of Stimulus Relief. Now They’re Suing,” Vox, May 6, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/5/6/21248074/immigrant-citizen-spouse-children-coronavirus-stimulus-checks

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