Left: Frank Wilderson; photo credit: Ebrahim Safi/UCI. Right: Andrew Highsmith; photo credit: UCI School of Humanities

How is the COVID-19 pandemic further revealing and deepening the country’s entrenched racial and economic inequities and disparities? Tackling this question in “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, interviews Andrew Highsmith, associate professor of history, and Frank B. Wilderson III, chair and professor of African American studies.

Tyrus Miller (0:06–0:29): Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I am Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Associate Professor of History Andrew Highsmith and Professor and Chair of African American studies Frank B. Wilderson III. Hi, Frank and Andrew.

Frank B. Wilderson III (0:29–0:30): Hi.

Andrew Highsmith (0:30–0:32): Hello everyone.

Miller (0:33–3:04): Before we get started, I wanted to just cite a report from CNN that I read today and it offered some really stark figures about the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on particular groups of the population of the United States. First was the headline that the Navajo Nation surpasses the per capita COVID-19 infection rate of the state of New York. The Navajo Nation now has about 2,300 cases per hundred thousand people, while the state of New York, which is clearly the most dramatic center of the epidemic, now has about 1,800 cases per hundred thousand and New Jersey has about 1,600, compared to 2,300 for the Navajo Nation. That’s a staggering figure, especially when you consider also the dearth of health care facilities and in some cases even basic services like running water for many of the people affected here.

The article also reported that in the 39 states and the District of Columbia that collect race and ethnicity data, African Americans make up 13% of the population but 27% of the COVID-19 deaths and this disparity was even higher in specific contexts, like in New Orleans. And in our own state of California, Latinx people are 39% of the state’s population but 53% of the infections. So just looking at the numbers, we have a very, very stark picture of racial and ethnic disparities with people of color and other vulnerable populations impacted in really disproportionate ways by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those are the numbers, and I’d like to talk to you, Andrew and Frank, about a bit of what’s behind those numbers and some of the ways also in which the humanities lenses that you bring to bear on these questions can help us to understand them more deeply and better.

Andrew, let’s start with you. It’s been nearly five years since your book Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis was published. It was an in-depth case study of the racial and economic inequality in the modern America, particularly in Flint. How are places like Flint faring up in the current pandemic?

Highsmith (3:04–5:59): Well, thanks Tyrus. Unfortunately, not well, and the situation in Flint and in Detroit and many other cities like them are similar to what you described in your opener. To give you a sense of, I mean, we’ve heard in the news about the outbreak in Michigan. Michigan has been one of the epicenters of the pandemic, having higher rates even than California and other states with larger populations, and the growth of the pandemic in Michigan has been driven to a disproportionate extent by infections and fatalities in majority-Black cities such as Flint and Detroit.

To give you some additional numbers that reflect some of what you said, I just checked yesterday and in Genesee County, which is where Flint is located, as of yesterday, there were around 1,800 COVID-19 cases, about 230 deaths for a fatality rate of over 12%.

Now by way of comparison, Orange County, which has around three million residents, has about 88 deaths to date from COVID, so the Flint metropolitan region, which is a fraction of the size of Orange County has a significantly higher death toll than a place like Orange County.

The numbers suggest, as you said, deep inequities and disparities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those are rooted in racial inequality, they’re also rooted spatially as well. If you look at the data from Genesee County, one of the other things that’s striking beyond the racial disparities is that the city of Flint, which comprises around 20% of the metropolitan area of Genesee County, accounts for over 40% of the COVID infections. And that’s rooted largely in the spread inside the city of Flint, where African Americans constitute a majority and have for quite some time, and so in Flint, the death toll from the coronavirus is significantly higher than in the suburbs surrounding the city and unfortunately, Flint is no exception.

These sorts of disparities are also in evidence all across the country, everywhere from Detroit to New York City and New Orleans as you mentioned. This is the national story of the pandemic in the United States.

Miller (6:00–6:15): In the Flint case, African Americans have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. What can you say about the experience of other historically marginalized groups in terms of their experience of the pandemic?

Highsmith: (6:16–8:26): Another great question. And I think it reflects what you opened with, your data from the Navajo Nation. As startling as it is, it’s actually not atypical in regards to other historically marginalized groups. Now to back up though, part of the problem with discussions about race and inequality in the COVID-19 pandemic is that the data on race has been actually very slow to emerge and incomplete in many cases. A number of states and localities are classifying Native Americans, for example, as others, making it very difficult to trace the specific impacts on communities like the Navajo Nation.

But the data that we do have paints a very stark portrait of inequality really across the board. As recently as last week, when I checked data for different groups in the U.S., all non-white groups in the U.S. had higher infection rates and fatality rates than whites across the board, that goes for Native Americans as you mentioned but also Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, African Americans of course, the Latinx community. Across the board, we’ve seen very deep inequities along lines of race. In addition, I think it’s also worth noting that in the last few months, there’s been a major spike nationwide in racist violence against communities of color, in particular Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Some of the data there is incredibly sobering.

In the last two months, since late March, there have been over 1,000 documented assaults, either physical or verbal, against Asian Americans in the U.S. just in the last two months and so that’s another manifestation, I think, of the racial inequities of the COVID pandemic.

Miller (8:27–9:08): Of course this situation is, you know, as it has become almost a media cliché, an unprecedented situation, but it’s not a situation without a past and without a history. These inequalities didn’t just emerge in this short span in which we’ve been dealing with the pandemic. And I know that in your work on the Flint, Michigan environmental disparities that led to the water crisis there, you really looked at a very long time span in which this was developing. How have past inequities related to race shaped the course of the COVID-19 crisis?

Highsmith (9:08–13:20): Well, deeply, in short. I think this is a really important question because it points to some of the frustrating elements of the discourse in our country on COVID-19 and that’s that we’ve, as a nation for decades now, we’ve paid fairly close attention to the existence of racial health disparities but there’s been far less discussion on the fundamental causes of those inequities and so we document disparities related to cardiovascular disease or cancers or COVID-19, and yet missing from that conversation all too often is an appreciation for the much deeper historical causes of these sorts of inequities. And if you want evidence of this, look no further than the federal government’s response to the crisis. In the past few weeks, Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar well as the Surgeon General Jerome Adams have been asked on numerous occasions to explain the racial disparities related to COVID and invariably, they’ve pointed to A, the existence of comorbidities among communities of color, and B, personal behaviors, and that discussion of personal behaviors is very difficult to interpret in any other way than victim blaming.

As evidence of this, I think about the speech that Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General, gave a few weeks ago, where he essentially lectured African Americans and Latinos on the need to protect their families during this COVID-19 pandemic in ways that sounded a lot, to me at least, like victim blaming. But lost in this conversation about comorbidities and personal behaviors has been a discussion of these deeper forces. And to give you an example of a couple of these, consider the fact that in the last few weeks, historians have begun to trace the correlations between historic practices of redlining in the real estate industry and the places where coronavirus has spread the most rapidly. And interestingly, those maps line up very well. The places that were redlined, dating back to the 1930s and ’40s, are also some of the nation’s hot spots for coronavirus and that correlation is not accidental. It’s rooted in the fact that redlining resulted in massive disinvestment, it created segregated and dilapidated neighborhoods full of overcrowded housing, and these are the kinds of conditions in which COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases spread.

Another example would be thinking about the decades of structural disadvantage economically that have resulted in disproportionate numbers of Black and brown workers working in public-facing jobs, jobs like housekeeping or home health care that you can’t do from home. Those are some of the reasons why the virus has spread so rapidly in working class communities of color. Or mass incarceration — after decades of really draconian criminal justice policies, we have a massively disproportionate share of Black and brown people in prisons and jails and those of course have been Petri dishes for the spread of this virus. And yet, listening to many of our federal officials, those sorts of discussions are really absent, but we really need to have those conversations about deeper historical inequities if we want to grapple with the real, fundamental causes of this pandemic, I think.

Miller (13:21–13:56): Thank you, Andrew. I want to turn to Frank now and observe that the unfolding COVID-19 crisis has laid bare even further the deep structures of inequality in the United States with the disproportionate death tolls affecting the Black and Latinx communities. I’d like to hear from you some of your views of the reasons for these disparities and also some of the consequences that may arise from it coming out of the pandemic crisis.

Wilderson (13:57–21:42): Yeah, well thank you. In the interest of time, I’m going to front load this with conclusions as opposed to working through them the way I would normally. And I have three take away points that come from three theorists who are very important to my work and the way I see the world and think about these issues.

One is David Marriott, who was your colleague at UC Santa Cruz for a while, and one of the things that he writes is, we have to think about anti-Black violence as not a form of discrimination but as essential rituals for the building of human community. And that is a way of looking at how, in other words, where am I moving to? I’m moving to thinking about the ways in which all marginalized groups are dying in the same way but the suffering that brings about this death is not structured in the same way. That would be the argument.

So the point that I’m trying to make from Marriott is that he says, we’ve looked at something like lynching for a long time as being an attack on Black people who are making it too big economically, or vigilantism, and if you broaden this out and think of it as a way, a ritual of inflicting gratuitous violence, which is to say violence upon a community that doesn’t need a real or projected transgression for that violence to happen, then that would be gratuitous violence, and that would be the dividing line for me between Blacks and all others, even other people of color who are marginalized, and that allows us then to say then, well, what does that do?

It’s a repetition of spectacles that act as a balm for the libidinal economy or the collective unconscious of everyone else to say, that kind of thing could happen to me, right? Were it to happen to me there would have to be some type of reason, at one level of abstraction, either directly I violated a law, or at a higher level of abstraction, my people are seen as a conceptual threat to the conceptual integrity of the state. There’s none of that threat coming from Blackness as a formation, there’s not a conceptual threat, if we read Fanon, it’s a bodily threat. And so if we then make the leap, it’s a leap that I would take about 10 weeks to explain in class but we have less than 10 minutes. If we take the leap and say that there has to be a formation of people in any civilized society for whom the laws and the practices of punishment of that society do not apply, in other words, there has to be a group of people for whom violence and injury is inflicted upon without there having to be a reason, number one, and there has, for these other people to actually be legible to themselves and then if we say that moving down the level of abstraction, that part of the result of that is that injury as a concept, and consent as a kind of birthright of all citizens are two ideas, two concepts, two elements of what it means to be human that cannot be invested in a certain population.

In other words, the idea that you can injure Black people cannot have legitimacy in the collective unconscious if society is to be stable, and finally, that would be, that comes from Hartman and other people, Saidiya Hartman. Finally, if we say, building on Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, that slavery is not the experience of chattel, the experience of picking cotton, the experience of chopping sugar cane, those are things that can happen within slavery, but slavery is the permanent banishment of a certain group of people from the opportunity to be acted upon violently for reasons. Let me repeat that again, slavery is the banishment of a certain group of people from a class, a formation, that has the opportunity to be acted upon through contingency.

Then we have a situation in which COVID is like, or the deaths that are happening to Blacks, are the same at the level of physique, physiology, you know, we stop breathing like everyone else stops breathing, but the meaning of that death in civil society is not the same as the meaning of the death of Natives people or Latinx people or poorer white people, it is an essential meaning which can not be addressed in the same way. And so concretely, what we see is that for the past 400 to 500 years, we have suffered, Black people, intergenerational DNA damage. Intergenerational DNA damage from a lot of the things that everyone else experiences who are oppressed, to some things that are very singular which is to say, for example, the practice of doctors during slavery, during Jim Crow, and maybe even up to the present, of infecting Black people with diseases in order to observe the progression of diseases and observe death, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee Institute where over 40 years, Black men were either given syphilis or given a placebo for syphilis.

We then now arrive in a context in which, to just jump ahead, let’s say we had a vaccine tomorrow. Well, two things for me would be operative within the libidinal economy of Black people as a result of this whole history. One would be that it is absolutely necessary for you to go and get vaccinated and to believe that that vaccination will cure you, but it is also necessary for you to go and get vaccinated and believe that they have poison in the syringes or nothing at all.

In other words, you always have to engage the state, engage civil society with both of those things being equal because civil society is a murderous juggernaut for us, whereas for other marginalized people, it is a system of elastic or rigidly contracting opportunities and laws that can be either expanded upon or denied. It’s really important for me, as a theorist, not to pooh-pooh the policy initiatives that people who are trying to correct the actual immediate violence that is happening to us, but also not to have faith in progress narratives.

Miller (21:43–23:52): Hence the term “pessimism” in Afropessimism has a kind of degree of hedging against the expectation that there’s gonna be salvation down the road certainly in any near sense. I wanted also just to draw out a couple of implications from what you’ve said. You’re in some way suggesting perhaps an even longer view or deeper historical view in the experience of slavery and the interweaving of that in the very constitution of American society as still, in some ways, playing out in this current situation. I would say that I understand from what you’re saying that you certainly wouldn’t see the surge of racist organizing and racist violence that we’re seeing as something that’s contingent or just situational but something coming out, again, out of those deep roots, but I also feel, and this is certainly a much more uncomfortable thing to confront, that you’re also confronting what might be thought of as a good-hearted empathy of “we’re all in this together and we’re sympathizing with those who are less fortunate than we in this situation.” You’re asking us in some ways to examine what that sentiment does for us and I’m speaking now for non-Black people, you’re asking us really to consider this experience and this history in a way that makes that a much less automatic and less comfortable, easy gesture of apparent solidarity.

Wilderson (23:53–26:45): Yes, yeah, I mean, so I would, when I do workshops for Black Lives Matter for example, I say we have to have two trains running. I mean, you cannot take an Afropessimist paradigmatic critique of civil society as being a necessary ensemble of murderous practices into an immediate situation in the Black community that has to solve something that’s immediate like the end of police brutality or access to health care or clean water.

At the same time, I would not genuflect to the necessary policy and legal reasoning to correct these things by saying that therefore, there’s something redemptive about the American project in general and about civil society in particular because what I think we have been arguing, when I say we, I mean myself, Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, Marriott and others who have contributed to what is, Afropessimism is not a sad kind of thing; it’s a critique of the emancipatory logic of various narratives of liberation. And I think those logics have to prove to us that in the collective unconscious, it is actually possible to have what, in psychoanalysis, is called empathic identification.

You have to prove to me that it is possible to have empathic identification when looking at Black suffering. In point of fact, I believe that that kind of, even though the pre-conscious mind will say “I see Black people suffering and I care,” I also think that there’s something working, what Freud would call primary processes of signification in the unconscious which foreclosed upon that. In other words, in order for the unconscious to fully integrate a process of empathy, to see Black people injured, what the unconscious does is it substitutes the spectacle of Black suffering with some other body or at worse or at best, it juxtaposes the Black suffering with the suffering of, say, Latinx people and what that does is it allows for empathy to articulate itself as caring about Black suffering while doing an end run around the actual structure of Black suffering, which I said at the very beginning is necessary if the world is to exist with some form of coherent integrity.

That’s precisely the abyss that we fail to look into.

Miller (26:45–27:50): I’m also interested in just asking you a little bit about what you bring from the humanities and both of you have spoken from a deep engagement with humanistic disciplines and humanistic ways of thinking.

Frank, you’ve mentioned various critics and philosophers that you refer to. I wonder if just stepping back for a moment, if you could say a little bit about, I think a question that we’re all sort of asking ourselves, what importance do the humanities have in the midst of a situation like this? Why study philosophy in a pandemic? Why investigate history in a pandemic?

Frank, I’ll start with you. If you could reflect a little bit on that question of the humanities’ relevance in this situation.

Wilderson (27:50–29:37): Well, okay, I’ll try to be very, very brief to give Andrew more time but basically what the humanities is, for us at UC Irvine, is about 14 units and departments, so it’s varied, but what I tell students because I come to it through critical theory, I tell students that the value of the humanities is that we can assess relations of power without having to actually put our finger on the empiricism of the performance of power, and I think that that’s why Marx could never get a job in the economics department but he could probably get a job in culture and theory at UCI having written Das Kapital, you know?

Because he says value comes from socially necessary labor time. Value is not phenomena, you cannot have a word called value and then put it on a piece of gold and say that the word relates to the thing. One of the things that we’ve lost, or in America in particular and Britain to a certain extent, is this kind of celebration of a lens of interpretation that the toolbox of the humanities give us so that we don’t have to actually go to the factory floor to see exploitation and alienation, the extraction of surplus value. We can actually see that happening, if you’ll excuse the joke, in a faculty meeting, okay?

Miller (29:40–29:47): Alright, Frank.

Andrew, why study history in the midst of a pandemic?

Highsmith (29:48–33:21): So, lots of reasons. History, I think, is absolutely vital and the humanities more broadly to thinking about this pandemic and our responses to it as a society. I’ll be a little more concrete than Frank but I remember almost just a week or two after the virus had started to spread in the U.S., people started sharing these graphs from the 1918 flu pandemic comparing cities like Philadelphia with Seattle and St. Louis and some other places and that immediately is one of the things that history can do in terms of thinking about COVID is give us lessons from the past, concrete lessons that ought to inform our practices today.

In case you haven’t seen those graphs, because of our federalist system, there were a range of different responses at the state and local level to the 1918 flu pandemic and classically, the city of Philadelphia enacted few physical distancing measures and as result, suffered some of the highest death rates in the country. By contrast, city officials in Seattle and in St. Louis and some other cities enacted very strict physical distancing regulations. They banned public gatherings, they required the wearing of face masks, they shut down schools and so forth, and as a result, their fatality rates were significantly lower and so it is a very concrete sense in which the knowledge of previous pandemics ought to help inform our response today.

Another concrete lesson from history is the way that you resurrect an economy in crisis. And if you want to think about that, lessons from the 1930s are absolutely essential. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of many aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but the New Deal of the 1930s did help to establish a basic social safety net and its programs helped to give people jobs and put money in their pockets and blunted some of the worst violence of the Great Depression and these are lessons that we ought to think about today as we think about restarting the economy.

I’ve seen really startling numbers about the rates of unemployment that we’re likely to see at the bottom of this crisis approaching 25%, which would surpass that of the Depression, at the bottom of the Depression in the ’30s. And so one of the lessons, one of the concrete lessons that policy makers can take from the 1930s is that it takes massive federal spending, massive deficit spending even, to resurrect an economy in crisis. That’s fallen on deaf ears to a certain extent with the current presidential administration, but it’s a clear lesson from the 1930s that we ought to employ.

Miller (33:21–33:37): Well, I want to really thank you both so much for this thoughtful discussion and for those of you watching, thank you, and we’ll see you in our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks so much, Andrew and Frank.

Wilderson (33:37–33:38): Thank you.

Highsmith (33:38–33:39): Thank you.

Miller (33:39–33:40): Bye-bye.

Related links:

The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.