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COVID-19 Lockdown

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Anything that has to do with Black Americans is most definitely ignored by those who believe their interests aren’t taken into consideration. And they don’t need to be gun-toters or right-wing militia members to be used by those whose goal it is to turn fear and hate of Black Americans, in particular, into a campaign slogan.

MEGA! MEGA! MEGA! Black lives matter, but what about us?

Politicians and civic leaders know enough about US history to stir up white indignation, to use this indignation to write narratives in which the victims of conquest, genocide, enslavement, and interment are parasites, living off the achievements of the real people who built this country. Justify the violence inflicted upon the freeloaders, and in the resulting centrifuge, who notices how Blacks are no longer entitled to a hearing? Guilty! Guilty! So say the “victims”! The success of the ministers of propaganda goes undetected, along with the disappearance of historical injustices and their legacy in present day against Black people.

So in the year of the COVID pandemic, America didn’t even press the pause button: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Andre Hill. The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 showed the world what Black people knew—that anti-democratic forces, consisting, often of “victims,” armed with guns, ropes, Confederate flags, Trump flags! And a legacy of white privilege!

The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 showed the world what Black people knew—that anti-democratic forces, consisting, often of “victims,” armed with guns, ropes, Confederate flags, Trump flags! And a legacy of white privilege!

Even so, how many of the insurrectionists were arrested on the spot? And if you answer, “0,” then, why not? There were plenty in violation of some serious laws. Plenty committing violence…

Occasionally, a white American, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, informs me about how tired they’ve become of hearing even the word, “racism.” It’s all “overblown.” As individuals, no one is a racist. So I don’t bother to explain. No one benefits from hundreds of years of white supremacy.

So when I came across The Nation’s justice correspondent Elie Mystal’s article, “I’m Not Ready To Reenter White Society,” I read it with a great deal of interest.

“I’ve said, here and elsewhere, that one of the principal benefits of the pandemic is how I’ve been able to exclude racism and whiteness generally from my day-to-day life.”

I, too, recognized the benefits of the pandemic lockdown, even though I could picture people dying without the benefit of anyone they knew, any family or friends, at their side. But at 67 years old, I thought it would be an opportunity to reflect on how far I’ve come and what more needs to be done on my part to end the tyranny of the crazies. At least in terms of outside exposure to racism and whiteness, my mobility was curtailed; I went out only when necessary, to medical appointments and the stores nearby. But, let’s just say my period of “reflection” wasn’t as contemplative as I had anticipated.

 Mystal writes that he could “more or less only deal with whiteness” when he wanted to do so. He hadn’t been driving or shopping in person. “White people,” Mystal continues, “haven’t improved; I’ve just been able to limit my exposure to them.” Not that most of his interactions with white people are “bad,” he writes. It’s just that he’s been able to choose being in white society. And prior to this past year of the pandemic that choice was a “privilege” he didn’t have before.

Mystal knew the lockdown wouldn’t last. However changed the nation after the murder of George Floyd and the coming together of a rainbow of people engaging in Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country, Mystal is saddened that his time in his “white-free castle” is coming to an end. Ephemeral was his freedom from racism.

“A weekend trip to CVS showed me that I’m not ready. I’m not ready to go back to accepting that, in a diverse and pluralistic society, some white people are allowed to just impose their implicit biases on the world, and the rest of us have to suck it up.”

Last year, his wife wanted to venture out to CVS to buy Easter candy for the children. Once the family reaches the store, Mystal drops his wife off and takes the children for a ride. When he returns to the CVS parking lot, he and the children wait for his wife. “I’m idling in the parking lot, near the door, when another car pulled up,” he writes. The driver stops in front of the store. She’s an older white woman. Mystal sees a teenage Black female near by. Sixteen, maybe. She’s on her cellphone.

“‘Is this where you get the vaccines?’”

The question is directed at the teenager who ignores the woman.

“‘I said, is this where you get the vaccines?’”

The teenager “did this elaborate pantomime of looking behind her, a very clear, ‘she must not be talking to me, a person just standing outside and messing with my phone.’”

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Mystal could see the white woman becoming “pissed off.”

“‘IS THIS WHERE YOU GET THE VACCINES?’”

The teen doesn’t respond. Finally, Mystal watches as the white woman pulled her car out of the parking lot. She shouts, “‘the service!’”

And off she goes. Clueless. Mystal disapproved of the white woman “haranguing a young person,” but mainly, he was upset with himself for not doing more. Mystal writes that he wasn’t on his “game” that morning, so he did think to do more, to roll down his window maybe and speak up against the woman on behalf of the teenager.

As I write, I’m reminded of the testimony given by a now 18-year-old Darnella Frazier at the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Last year, Frazier, then a 17-year-old, used her cellphone to record what we know is the murder of Floyd. Yet, it’s this young woman, feeling guilt, she tells the court, for not doing something to save Floyd’s life, rather than Chauvin. The perpetrator, who placed and maintained his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine minutes, has voiced no remorse.

There are some Americans who freely and openly announce how they are so tired of hearing about “racism.” It’s so “overblown.” 

One doesn’t hold the same gravitas as the other; nonetheless, Mystal wishes he had done something. Frazier wishes she had done something. I can recognize why both would have wanted to do more. Act to call out racism! To possibly save George Floyd! When you are a daily witness to the violence of racism committed on another who looks like you, is your family member, is you, it’s impossible to also have the luxury of turning away. Some of us walk about America with targets on our backs. Generations after generations of violence committed against us with impunity has enlarged the bullseye while we persist in declaring Black lives matter. We matter!

“A lot of white people have no idea what I’m talking about,” writes Mystal. I can hear the frustration in that statement. I can hear the rebuttals, too. It’s no big deal. It’s a little thing. Get over it!

But what is it to “get over racism”?

Here’s a white woman, Mystal explains, not asking for help, but feeling “entitled to it.” There’s something called etiquette 101 which should have applied to the Black teenager, too. The Black teen wasn’t the help, after all.

But, as Mystal writes, white people see a Black and assume away! Unconscious bias kicks in. If we are on a college campus, we must be serving as part of the maintenance crew. We are uppity if seen out of that place established by social and cultural narratives situating Blacks as inferior, less than. In the 21st Century. Too! So many white Americans do assume that all Blacks are the help, writes Mystal “put on this earth to serve them.”

I’m reminded of that historical narrative in which this perception of exceptionalism, of white supremacy, rules. Blacks built the wealth of this country, but after 1865, we were no longer of any use, en masse. Help, in silence, with no representation. Or, as criminal, we don’t belong. Either way, it’s the same violent representative in which we are colored in or out. The Indigenous know all about this policy that always must yield to whiteness. After all, it’s the mighty slayer of all who aren’t among the structurally designated, racially privileged.

At the end of the COVID-19 lockdown, what is there?

The doors will open, restaurants will seat to capacity, schools will receive students, churches will fill their pews on Sundays, and on Mondays, all the co-workers will return to their desks, floors, wards—all will return to the home away from home. There, too, detectable to the targeted, will be “the slings and arrows of outrageous white people.”

I know that during this pandemic, many Black Americans couldn’t avoid those “slings and arrows” from the outraged. All we have to do is consider the increase in right-wing militia groups. But there were unemployment lobbies to sit in and wait for a turn to explain the need to receive unemployment checks, Black mothers with children who had to work, placing themselves and their families at a greater risk of exposure to the virus, a virus consuming Black lives at a greater rate, and, still, police officers visualizing bullseyes on Black bodies and shooting. And now in 2021, American exceptionalism is rolling right along: forty-three states and counting are preparing to obstruct the rights of Blacks to vote in coming elections.

We haven’t been able to be so free from the toxic whiteness of white society.

But I hear Mystal. He articulates an experience many of us have—or dread. He expresses the weariness we feel when donning the clown’s face just to make a living or shop for food or send our children to a good school. It’s an experience white America doesn’t share with Black America.

I hear Mystal. Even though I’ve long ago limited my activism and public engagement to the writing of articles, at the end of lockdown, it will mean even more exposure. The limited exposure to the toxicity of whiteness will come to an end.

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But then we know that no matter where we live or how much we limit our exposure, there’s always that target on each of our backs. White supremacy affixes it there, so ignorance and fear can maintain it.

After the lockdown, I suppose somethings will return to “normal” again.

Lenore Daniels