This is a moment, many have said, of white America reckoning with the profound depths of its racism. It’s a good idea. But what might a true reckoning really look like?
One repeated act of reckoning has looked like this: kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in tribute to the George Floyd, who was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin. There’s no doubt that some of these tributes, such as the recent one in Hollywood organized by BLM, are moving and significant. But when the gesture is picked up, for instance, by Democratic members of Congress who insist on a band-aid approach to reform, we should ask questions. What makes it so easy for these white liberals to denounce Chauvin’s violence without rejecting the system that allows, and even encourages, such violence to take place?
The 8 minute and 46 second kneeling protest is tidy metonym of a larger problem. In a confused gesture of appropriation, white liberals who take the knee reenact not Colin Kaepernick’s principled genuflect on the NFL field, but the very act of murder they ostensibly protest.
White liberals vilify individuals like Chauvin. They seek to redress his violence with the liberal balm of choice: awareness. But they fail to acknowledge how such individual crimes are manifestations of power structures that bolster white liberals themselves.
Something similar, and even more pernicious, is happening around another vilified figure: Donald Trump. Trump, like Chauvin, has been an agent of tremendous violence and cruelty. My point is not to exonerate or to minimize the harm these men have done.
Instead, my point is this: Donald Trump is the most glaring example of a kind of one-way vision, a perspective that fails to see the refracting systems of power in which white liberals, too, are caught. Call it the Trump Mystique: the view that Donald Trump’s presidency represents an exceptional, decidedly “not normal” break with American political tradition.
This Trump mystique mistakenly faults Trump alone for the callous cruelty of our moment. But a similar cruelty underpins the entire American experiment. If white America is serious about this moment of self-reckoning, a moment that combines a deadly pandemic disproportionately killing Black workers with an uprising against state violence disproportionately killing Black people, this is the kind of truth it needs to be willing to see.
We are daily immersed in the ideology that it is the duty of the many—the working class, racialized, immigrant, and/or undocumented—to maintain the wealth and health of the 1% and the stock-holding upper middle-class.
The Trump administration, it’s true, coddles billionaires, spoon-feeding them tax breaks and loosened regulations like overindulgent grandparents. Trump’s administration may employ the only officials inept enough to publicly refer to the nation’s workers as “human capital stock” or to project that 3,000 people a day will die while recommending that retail employees rush to open the nation’s stores. Left-leaning commentators rightly denounce Trump’s failed federal response to the pandemic as criminal negligence.
But this alone doesn’t explain the decision to relegate the poor to death so that the ultra-wealthy may flourish. The same pattern can be seen across the country as liberal governors, too, rush to reopen even as COVID-19 cases spike from coast to coast.
Black New Yorkers are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 as white New Yorkers; the virus’ spread throughout the city maps to race and income, sparing the wealthy—many of whom left the city altogether—and turning the poorest zip codes into laboratory experiments. In San Francisco’s Mission district neighborhood, 90% of those testing positive for COVID-19 share one thing in common: they are overwhelmingly Latinx residents “unable to work from home.” Meanwhile, the country’s 600 billionaires raked in a combined profit of $434 billion during the first two months of lockdown alone.
And it’s not just liberal cities where this problem exists. Another bastion of American liberal tradition, the university, similarly tolls the death cult bell. University presidents have issued many statements expressing outrage at George Floyd’s death and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. But what does this mean in practice? Meanwhile, universities ranging from Brown to Purdue rush to reopen their campuses for face-to-face classes this fall on the grounds that their bottom lines depend on tuition dollars. Rather than join the Left’s call for free college underwritten by federal and state funds, these presidents offer more of the same: render the lives of students, faculty, staff and their families cannon fodder to protect the most profitable system of higher education in the world.
Even quarantine precisely depends on unequal life chances. This is not to say that quarantine shouldn’t be continued: given how profoundly our government permitted COVID-19 to spread, quarantine has become a last and best chance. But in this system, essential workers risk their lives delivering the groceries, medications, and other sundries of daily life so that white-collar workers can maintain their health—already struggling though it may be—behind closed doors.
Digging beneath the Trump mystique unearths a brutal paradox. If one’s labor is marked essential, one’s life is often marked dispensable. And disturbingly this is a system seemingly required by the Republican government — but also by experts in public health, who have no other recommendation for “public” safety, even as the quarantine strategy brutally divides the public along class lines.
Admitting that the problem of injustice is not exceptional to Trump, but foundational to this country, even requires the uncomfortable work of seeing the injustices of some of the most praised “liberation” movements of the recent era. In particular, liberal feminism is marked by this very dynamic of optimizing the opportunities of some by sacrificing the life and health of the many. In 1963, Betty Friedan famously exposed the misery of the American housewife. She was a casualty of “the feminine mystique,” or the harmful fantasy that women’s sole route to happiness was through maintaining feminine passivity and nurturing their husbands and children.
The Feminine Mystique (1963) sounds an uncanny echo in times of quarantine and uprising. Women, Betty Friedan insists are “sick,” and they’re sick from the drudgery of performing essential household tasks day in, day out. The housewife’s lifestyle, she writes, is “quite simply, genocide,” for it slowly poisons her biological right to grow and flourish—as if it were regular doses of anthrax, rather than vacuuming powder, that she sprinkles wall to wall. Like any good doctor, Friedan dispenses her diagnosis along with a cure. “Women,” she prescribes, must be liberated from the endless stream of cooking, cleaning, and childcare so that they may assume professions that cultivate their “full human potential” for abstract, creative thought. But for which women does she advocate? It’s not difficult to see that for her, gender pivots on class. To free herself from mere “biological living” the middle-class woman must outsource the incessant grind of sustaining life to the working class.
The Feminine Mystique thus reverberates a well-known tone. Trump’s insistence that retail, factory, slaughterhouse, and other low-wage workers be exposed to infection to secure the financial wealth of the stock-owning classes echoes one of the twentieth century’s most famous liberal texts. As bell hooks pointed out long ago, Betty Friedan rescues the health of the middle-class housewife through consigning the working class to a tedium she defines as deadly.
All this is to say that although Trump is a problem, he is not the problem. And we need a better way to name the American propensity to secure the advantages of the few through consigning the many to disease and death.
Scholars and radical thinkers have offered several ways to describe the foundational inequality of our world. One possibility is philosopher Michel Foucault’s term “biopolitics.” This was Foucault’s phrase for describing the modern system of governing in which the central duty of the state is to maximize the so-called quality of its population. There are extreme versions of biopolitics: eugenics sterilization campaigns and Nazi concentration camps. But the logic of biopolitics underwrites modernity as a whole. European empires cut their biopolitical teeth establishing plantation economies in the Caribbean; Germany first tried out genocide via concentration camps in colonized Namibia. Now, even those who condemn colonization often are unwilling to see how a similar extractive logic plays out in today’s global capitalism. We see it in Friedan’s version of feminism, and in the labor divisions of quarantine. To optimize the health of the people and economy, mechanisms of state and capital mark some people, especially laborers and people of color, as unnecessary, expendable — or even as contagions best left to die once they have produced profit for the owning class.
Another term comes from Black studies theorists such as Saidiya Hartman, who emphasizes “dispossession,” or the system that devalues entire races of people as disposable if nations are secured and profits are reaped. Racism, writes the prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is a system that generates continual proximity to the fatal; it is the “production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Black life in particular has regularly been marked disposable, as raw material ripe for extraction beyond the very possibility of living.
The system of disposability carved deep scars in the flesh of the body politic long before this pandemic and uprising. The single best predictor of life expectancy has already become the neighborhood in which one lives. In some U.S. cities, people in the wealthiest zip codes live up to thirty years longer on average than people in the poorest zip codes. Thus, disposability is not a metaphor. The richer thrive, as if vampires, through draining the life force of the poor via unevenly distributing deadly labor and fatal environments.
And this is what the Black Lives Matter movement with which white America aims to be reckoning with has directly named. Black Lives Matter is filling the streets across the country in part because the movement directly identifies and rejects the logic that Black lives are expendable.
Protecting the health of the few through sacrificing the lives of the many is a structural dynamic built into our political and economic systems. The Trump Mystique holds only the current administration responsible for the politics of disposability — and implies that the solution is voting him out.
Certainly voting Trump out is of utmost importance. But just as vital is a willingness to acknowledge how the selfishness Trump flaunts is built, more insidiously, into the foundation of liberal structures as well, including white protests, university reopening plans, and Friedan’s white feminism.
And this means that our politics cannot be about a single election. It means a more intense and radical reckoning.
It means aggressively advocating for structural solutions — such as climate justice, police abolition, shared risk, mutual aid, a living wage, worker protection laws, Medicare, and tuition-free college for all — that are not simply about symbolism or awareness, but instead aim to fundamentally redistribute the chances of life and death.
Kyla Schuller hopes she’s not this pedantic in real life. If you want more, see The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Duke UP, 2018)