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.