tiptoe stance

I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America. This is in one important sense highly misleading. It’s too simple and therefore easy to refute or ignore. But that’s not the whole story.

If you visit the Mapping Police Violence site, you’ll see near the top of the page this statement: “Police killed 1,098 people in 2019.” Then, a little farther down the page, you get the information that “Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.” Which means that American police killed 263 black people last year. It’s not clear how many black people have died from COVID–19, but a reasonable estimate would be 25,000. That means that the coronavirus has killed 95 times more black Americans in just a few months than police killed in all of 2019. Put that way, the plagues scarcely seem comparable, do they?

But let’s not leave it at that. What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)

Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. I have not experienced anything like that, but I expect that something of the endless tension of it is captured in this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Take a look again at that long, long sentence in the middle of the passage, how it goes on and on, how you keep pausing for a second but only a second, never being able to stop long enough to catch your breath. “Living constantly at tiptoe stance.” A chronic affliction.

My dear friend Garnette Cadogan just posted a reflection on these matters, and if you listen to the music he chose to accompany his words you’ll note this theme again and again. To cite just one example, this from KRS-One:

My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My great grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great — when it’s gonna stop?

That’s why Toni Morrison, in a passage also quoted by Garnette, speaks of a cry that has “no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.

If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. Garnette’s essay and the music associated with it testify to that.

We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, for all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.

serious questions for churches

The question I would ask churches that are re-opening without masks or distancing, but with lots of congregational singing, is: How do you think infectious disease works, exactly? How do you think COVID–19 is transmitted? What’s the theory you’re operating on?

I’m going to assume that the leaders of such churches believe that infectious diseases exist, that there are illnesses that pass from person to person via contact or proximity. I am also going to assume that they believe that COVID–19 is one of these infectious diseases.

I wonder how many such leaders are aware that health organizations all over the world — not just American organizations run by Trump-hating libtards — generally agree about how COVID–19 is transmitted? See for instance this poster from the Japanese Ministry of Health:

JPMH

And perhaps they have read about the dramatic and terrible rate of illness among the members of this community choir?

Given all the information available, I’m wondering what they actually believe — not just about what their rights are, or about what they should be allowed to do — but rather about this disease. Some of the more likely options:

  1. It’s all fake news, even that thing from Japan. There’s nothing to worry about, COVID–19 is no worse than the flu. All those reports of death? FAKE NEWS. Massive conspiracy concocted by global elites.
  2. Some of it is true, but the dangers are dramatically exaggerated by the global elites, we’ll probably be fine. Also, masks don’t work.
  3. It was very dangerous, but it’s all over now — the President wouldn’t be telling us to open up if it weren’t safe to do so.
  4. It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
  5. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not. If we perish, we perish. We may all get sick, we may all even die, but we’re not supposed to count the cost of following the Lord.

My guess is that the churches choosing to open — when they can; some that want to are now forbidden to do so — are using any and all of the above options as needed. Theirs is a castle with many mottes and many baileys. I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them.

So we should expect to see any of the five defenses listed above, and perhaps others I have neglected, deployed from once moment to the next, even though those defenses aren’t necessarily consistent with one another. The answer to my initial question, then, is that the leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.

choices

Rusty Reno

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 

Richard J. Hatchett, Carter E. Mecher, and Marc Lipsitch (2007): 

We noted that, in some cases, outcomes appear to have correlated with the quality and timing of the public health response. The contrast of mortality outcomes between Philadelphia and St. Louis is particularly striking. The first cases of disease among civilians in Philadelphia were reported on September 17, 1918, but authorities downplayed their significance and allowed large public gatherings, notably a city-wide parade on September 28, 1918, to continue. School closures, bans on public gatherings, and other social distancing interventions were not implemented until October 3, when disease spread had already begun to overwhelm local medical and public health resources. In contrast, the first cases of disease among civilians in St. Louis were reported on October 5, and authorities moved rapidly to introduce a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing, implementing these on October 7. The difference in response times between the two cities (≈14 days, when measured from the first reported cases) represents approximately three to five doubling times for an influenza epidemic. The costs of this delay appear to have been significant; by the time Philadelphia responded, it faced an epidemic considerably larger than the epidemic St. Louis faced. Philadelphia ultimately experienced a peak weekly excess pneumonia and influenza (P&I) death rate of 257/100,000 and a cumulative excess P&I death rate (CEPID) during the period September 8–December 28, 1918 (the study period) of 719/100,000. St. Louis, on the other hand, experienced a peak P&I death rate, while NPIs were in place, of 31/100,000 and had a CEPID during the study period of 347/100,000.

Let’s be clear about this: Reno thinks the city of Philadelphia got it right, while the city of St. Louis “lived under Satan’s rule.” 

UPDATE: I just read Damon Linker’s column on Reno’s essay, which is outstanding. 

extended families

I have written before about the experience I had growing up in the same house as my paternal grandparents. When I was very young, I had an inchoate sense that my mother and father and sister and I were living in Gran and Grandma’s house. But later, after my father got out of prison and after Gran was forced into retirement after a horrific automobile accident, the terms and conditions seemed gradually to shift, and I started to feel that the house was somehow now our house and Gran and Grandma were living with us. But in fact all along we were just a family living together, and never at any point was this an odd thing. It was common enough in our social class — working class, lower-lower-middle class — in those days that I don’t think either of my parents were ever the least bit ashamed of it, though surely they were at times frustrated by it.  

These days, though, there can be great shame associated with living in extended families, because of the peculiar sense of independence that so many of us have. Young adults don’t feel independent unless and until they are living away from their parents; and as for the parents, as they age they dread the loss of independence that would accompany having to move in with their children. 

There is at least the chance that the current crisis will change those feelings. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans are going to lose their jobs in the coming months. Not all of them will have homes to go to — “homes” in the Robert Frost sense of a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — but those who do will have a chance to revisit our assumptions about the necessity, indeed the very value, of independence. And that may not be an altogether bad thing.