COVID denialism is racism

Front view of a punching hand

At first it seems confusing and out of place; they weren’t celebrating their heritage, real or imagined. So why did protesters in Michigan — as far north from the Deep South as you can possibly be and still be in the US — wear Confederate garb and carry Confederate flags?

Because COVID denialism is primarily an expression of white identity. It is partly wishful thinking that white, rural people are immune, but it also includes a willingness to die to conserve a superior “place” in a purported racial hierarchy.

Many poor white people are willing to die to conserve their “place” in a purported racial hierarchy.

When these protestors die, and too many of them will, they will be dying of whiteness.

How did we get here?

It’s just an extension of the politics of racial resentment that have been roiling the country for a generation.

COVID-19 started in China and brought massive suffering to Italy, literally shutting the country down. But the first major flares in the US occurred in cities known for liberalism, tolerance and population density. And because it disproportionately kills people of color, many white people erroneously believe that they are immune.

But even as they find they are not immune — consider the stories circulating about COVID deniers who dropped their denialism when they became desperately ill — denialism is growing as a political force.

Homemade placards reading ‘give me liberty or give me covid’, and ‘live free or die’, feel frighteningly close to the truth, as protestors defy crucial social distancing guidelines, and demand the lifting of necessary measures which would see a sharp spike in fatalities…

As physician Jonathan Metzl explained in Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, poor, rural white people often favor beliefs and policies that literally kill them.

As Metzl noted in an interview last year:

…What I was trying to do was first explore how racial tensions shaped policies in particular states. And 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.

In Kansas [where voters have supported massive cuts to public services], for example, a number of very far-right people told me that they felt like minority school districts were taking all the state taxpayer money and buying party buses and having parties. And those tensions shaped policies that defunded schools or blocked immigration or cut health care services. So were the individual people racist? I don’t know. But the policy itself was shaped by racial tensions, and that, ultimately, dictated health outcomes across the board.

This isn’t merely people failing to understand how the policies they support will hurt them. It’s people willing to be hurt in order to preserve racial hierarchies. When COVID deniers declare they want to live free or die, they mean that they don’t want to live if they have to live in a world where people of color are accepted as equal.

But what about COVID deniers on the Left, the anti-vaxxers and purveyors of the nonsense “documentary” Plandemic? Although they will deny it vigorously, their views rest on racism, too.

Anti-vax has long been an expression of white privilege. As sociologist Jennifer Reich writes in the paper Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal: Imagined Gated Communities and the Privilege of Choice:

[Anti-vax mothers] … envision disease risk to lie in “foreign” bodies outside their networks, and, therefore, individually manageable …

Anti-vaxxers claim to be empowered by their decisions:

Yet, they do so by claiming their power through dominant feminine tropes of maternal expertise over the family and by mobilizing their privilege in the symbolic gated communities in which they live and parent…

At its heart — both on the Right and the Left — COVID denialism is an expression of racism. It is the belief that white people, by virtue of being superior, are immune to the scourge. And if it doesn’t actually make them immune, they will settle for displaying their supposed superiority by campaigning against measures they view as benefiting poor people of color.