Did President Donald Trump care a bit less about the coronavirus pandemic after he found out who was getting sick?
By that I mean groups that conspicuously endure the worst impact of the pandemic: working-class folks who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to work from home, particularly African Americans and Hispanics who have been hit harder by COVID-19 than other racial groups.
The coronavirus epidemic has put a wrinkle in our usual conversations about racial and class divides.
“The coronavirus epidemic has rendered the racial contract visible in multiple ways,” writes Adam Serwer at The Atlantic. “Once the disproportionate impact of the epidemic was revealed to the American political and financial elite, many began to regard the rising death toll less as a national emergency than as an inconvenience.”
Serwer borrows the term “racial contract” from philosopher Charles Mills to describe the unwritten but widely understood agreement to follow rules that “do not apply to nonwhite people in the same way that they apply to white men.
“The terms of the Racial Contract,” Mills wrote, “mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.”
That’s a grim but historically based assessment of the old racial etiquette that tolerated the birth defect of slavery, followed by Jim Crow racial segregation laws and other injustices.
In his article-essay, Serwer applies the racial contract theory to the politics and perceptions in the coronavirus crisis. His headline: “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying.”
That’s a reference to the demographics of those who are overrepresented in professions where they risk victimization by COVID-19. The pandemic has introduced a new clause in the racial contract, says Serwer: “The lives of the disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.”
I see what he means, but I don’t entirely agree. While there is plenty of material in current events to feed suspicions of institutional racism or ethnic xenophobia, it is virtually impossible to separate the coronavirus impact of race or ethnicity from economic class.
I, for example, am an African American who thanks the Almighty and modern technology for enabling me to work at home, separated from the most hazardous hot spots unless I choose to venture into them.
But did Trump have race in mind on April 28 when he signed an executive order using the Defense Production Act to keep meat-processing plants open, even as many became virus hot spots?
Serwer is right to note that elites displaying a callous disregard for workers of any race is an old story. But in America, where labor and race are so often intertwined in many ever-changing ways, it’s hard and often impossible to separate the two.
In Trump’s case, for example, he has slipped so effortlessly into directly conflicting messages concerning the pandemic that his shape-shifting rhetoric seems to boil down even more than most other politicians to a simple message: “Please vote for me.”
For example, he spent weeks downplaying coronavirus before declaring it a national emergency on March 13.
Asked about the administration’s much-criticized lack of widespread access to testing for coronavirus, his response underscored for all who did not know it by now that the days of former President Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” are long gone.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said. Just please like him.
Things really went sideways in last Monday’s outdoor news conference. CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang asked the president, who stood with large signs that proclaimed: “America leads the world in testing,” why he sees coronavirus testing as a global competition when more than 80,000 Americans have died.
“Maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” Trump said for some unexplained reason. “Don’t ask me. Ask China that question, OK?”
Not OK. Jiang, who was born in China and immigrated to America when she was 2, asked why he was “saying that to me specifically?”
Trump tried to move on to another reporter, failed and finally turned and walked away. Maybe he wanted more praise for his inaccurate signs.
Some will suspect racism in Trump’s confused response. Maybe. But his bigger problem is his divisive politics, explosive personality and a sense that he’s still running a TV show, not a nation in desperate need of sensible problem-solving leadership.