Even Naked, America Cannot See Itself

In a time of plague, willful blindness is a coping mechanism.

The food pantry at First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst, which is serving hundreds more people than it did before the pandemic. Photo: Pari Dukovic
The food pantry at First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst, which is serving hundreds more people than it did before the pandemic. Photo: Pari Dukovic
The food pantry at First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst, which is serving hundreds more people than it did before the pandemic. Photo: Pari Dukovic

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There was the pandemic, then there was the storm. Of all the natural disasters, tornadoes lend themselves the most to being read as Providence. Like hurricanes and wildfires, they can level everything in their path, but those paths can also be narrow enough, forgiving enough, to grind one house into debris while leaving the neighboring structure untouched. Metaphors become redundant in the face of such calamity; the thing to which you’d otherwise be comparing it is, too often, what it already is. But when disaster looms, we grasp for deeper meaning. When the disaster is unfamiliar, our imaginations retreat to more familiar terms, even primordial ones, as with the notion that celestial forces control our fate. The need to ascribe our misfortunes to some grand plan makes it hard not to look for cosmic significance in the tornadoes that ripped through the American South on Easter Sunday, months after the novel coronavirus made itself known on U.S. shores and several weeks after any of us had left the house.

If you’ve never experienced a tornado, you might follow local guidelines, probably some combination of the sober advice you get from government-run meteorology websites — avoid windows, move to the lowest level of your building — and the shrill alarmism peddled on message boards advising that if a tornado hits while you’re at home, there’s not much you can do besides climb under a heavy blanket, cover your head, and pray. You might reassure yourself that since the storm is approaching from Mississippi, to the southwest, it’ll have several walls to chew through before it reaches your bedroom and your toddler’s nursery, at the opposite corner of your home in Georgia. You’ll keep flashlights by your bedside, weigh down your curtains — feeble gestures, by and large, to persuade yourself that you’re doing all you can to prepare for an event whose toll is largely beyond human control. You accept that the precise extent of a tornado’s damage is impossible to forecast. But if recent months have proved anything, it’s that most disasters we otherwise understand as “natural” have an uncanny way of reflecting human design. Randomness isn’t justice, even a perverse form, distributed equitably. It is a test of vulnerability — of your wherewithal to prepare, escape, recover.

From left: 10 a.m. on the Upper West Side. Photo: David Williams10 a.m. at Grand Central Terminal. Photo: PARI DUKOVIC/PARI DUKOVIC
From left: 10 a.m. on the Upper West Side. Photo: David Williams10 a.m. at Grand Central Terminal. Photo: PARI DUKOVIC/PARI DUKOVIC

The coronavirus was giving Americans a crash course in this lesson for weeks before the tornadoes came. In late March, New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s brother, Chris, a CNN anchor, got sick with the coronavirus. The governor watched from afar, helpless. He was worried, but he had problems of his own in Albany, not the least of which was New York’s newly minted status as the American epicenter of a pandemic that has, to date, killed more than 190,000 people and infected upwards of 2 million worldwide. With his constituents perishing and his family imperiled, Cuomo sent a supportive message to his brother on Twitter. “This virus is the great equalizer,” he wrote on March 31. “Stay strong little brother.”

The wrong lesson, of impartial vulnerability, will always be there, tempting. As, understandably, will be metaphysical rationales for physical phenomena — faith, myth. These have been instrumental in helping people navigate the otherwise unspeakable. But alongside them an insidious form of self-deception can take root: the lies we tell to reconcile our behavior, good and bad, with our idealized conceptions of who we are as individuals and as Americans. Faced with horrors so vast they make us feel impotent, we tell ourselves that crises invariably bring out our best; there’s no shortage of heroic anecdotes to reinforce this narrative, encompassing emergency response, provision of health care, neighborliness. But more often, these displays are too diffuse, too renegade, to overcome the scale of the disaster itself. The long list of crises that have taken America’s most brutal inequalities and enhanced them suggests the opposite conclusion, that a motivating shame should be our main takeaway from hurricanes Katrina and Maria, the 2008 economic crisis, the forever wars in which we’re now ensnared. For elected officials, in particular, pressure is high to sell a more flattering vision of U.S. culture — one defined by an unshakable belief that America, as a project, is singularly good, noble, and ripe with opportunity even in the toughest of times.

This vision regularly finds itself at odds with reality. Governor Cuomo knows as well as any that the coronavirus isn’t really “the great equalizer,” that generations of inequality cannot be erased simply by giving two people of differing economic backgrounds the same disease. You’d have to bury your head in the sand to ignore the obvious: By almost every metric, those getting the sickest and dying most frequently and being plunged into dire financial straits at disproportionate rates are the same people who were vulnerable and marginalized before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. Cuomo was spouting platitudes when he called the coronavirus an equalizer, not making a rigorous assessment of American life as it really is. But what pain has to be overlooked, whose suffering has to be trivialized, to make it such an appealing bromide?

A brief accounting: Hungry people have been stuck in traffic jams at the Forum in Inglewood, California, as thousands of motorists wend their way through the parking lot to pick up free groceries. Twenty-six million Americans have filed for unemployment since the middle of March, and a nationwide strain on food-bank capacity has resulted, with demand increasing by an average of 40 percent. “Lower-income workers, minority communities, communities of color, folks working in service jobs, folks living in public housing, folks with kids who are on the free, reduced lunch programs” — Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, told me over the phone — “those are the folks who are really feeling the pain on this. And they were already in pain before.” They’re also often your neighbors. On a Lyft ride home some months ago, the driver nodded to a church up the street from where I live, all brick spires and blue stained glass. He said that, almost 50 years ago, his father had founded the city’s oldest food pantry there, where time has done nothing to diminish its necessity. In April, the pantry had to double its allotted pickup days to meet demand.

In recent weeks, one could drive by the Cook County Jail, in southwest Chicago, and see a handwritten sign pressed against a cell window that read, HELP WE MATTER 2. Upwards of 4,000 prisoners remain trapped inside what was, for several days running, the largest known source of traceable coronavirus infections in the U.S., with over 400 cases. At Rikers Island, where infection rates soared to seven times the New York average, men were packed 50 to a room and slept on cots less than 15 inches apart. “It’s like The Walking Dead in here,” one prisoner told me on a phone call from jail. “We’re all trying to survive right now.” To date, more than 370 Rikers prisoners and 870 Department of Correction staff have tested positive for the virus, and ten have died.

One could drive just off the Las Vegas Strip and see dozens of homeless people asleep in a taped-off parking lot while empty but still gaudily lit luxury hotels loomed above them. County officials have been unable to reach a deal with casino owners to house the houseless in their unused hotel rooms, where they might enjoy a modicum of safety and hygiene. Recent actions by the Vegas city council had already criminalized resting on sidewalks for even brief stretches of time; pressed for lodging options, many people were forced into cramped shelters that have since become hotbeds of infection. This is a national problem: An April outbreak at San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter single-handedly caused a 12 percent spike in the city’s confirmed coronavirus cases. An outbreak at a Vegas shelter forced it to shut down temporarily, resulting in the emergency outdoor replacement being set up, a handful of parking spots recast as beds in an immediately infamous tableau of cruelty. Older people have been especially imperiled: for instance, the outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, which killed 43 people and vivified COVID’s lopsided threat to the elderly. In nursing homes across the country, 11,000 have already died.

But the suffering is larger still than the dying. Recent polls indicate that as many as two-thirds of Latino adults have lost their jobs or seen their incomes reduced as a result of the economic downturn. Much of this is attributable to Latino workers’ high representation among wage laborers in service and hospitality industries, which have been decimated. Even as American life retreats indoors, ICE raids continue, bringing armed agents into people’s homes and risking the spread of infection, then transporting those they capture to detention facilities known for incubating diseases. In a cruel twist of irony, many undocumented agricultural workers, demonized for years by nativists, have been deemed “essential” for their role in maintaining the food-supply chain. Grocery employees, home health aides, social workers — the essential economy under the coronavirus is rife with traditionally undercompensated professions staffed largely by people of color, especially women; employers have responded to their primacy by punishing as dissidents those seeking better conditions and protections.

Preliminary data points to some of the bleakest outcomes for black Americans, as anyone might have predicted even before that data began rolling in. Homeless, imprisoned, and impoverished people in the U.S. have and continue to be disproportionately black, with the accompanying health risks: higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, all reliable indicators of whether an otherwise manageable case of COVID could turn fatal. Black victims compose 40 percent of Michigan’s infected dead but 14 percent of the state’s population, for instance. They’re 70 percent of the dead in Louisiana, one of the country’s biggest epicenters outside New York, but just 33 percent of the population. In Chicago and Milwaukee — where, in the latter case, the average life expectancy for black people was 14 years shorter than for white people before the pandemic hit — black COVID deaths compose 55 percent and 81 percent of the totals, respectively, despite black people being less than 40 percent of the population in either city.

These are the people whose suffering is neglected when terms like equalizer are reduced to platitudes. But neglecting it in practice, as many officials have, also shapes our expectations of what returning to normal looks like. Social conditions that seemed intolerable six months ago have since acquired the sheen of an idyllic recovery. Getting back to work, earning wages again — these are broad improvements over what we have now that, nevertheless, won’t repair the long-standing circumstances of millions whose bigger problems were always structural. That many of us can’t even begin to expect or even conceptualize this — in a moment so desperate, so damning to the notion that America’s best feature is its ability to manufacture prosperity, a reopening where black doesn’t mean sicker, Latino doesn’t mean lower wages, and poor doesn’t mean unreliable food or housing — reaffirms that for millions, normality is cruel enough. Those of us with our heads above water are left to set our horizons of possibility at what we know: a world where such suffering is at our heels, rather than consuming us, or far enough out of sight to spare us disquiet. It makes bearable the prospect of a post-pandemic America where the best outcome might be worse than what we had before.

This is where the history that produced America’s undercastes is hardest to escape, where the flattering delusions that neglect suffering look less like personal coping mechanisms than a national inheritance. When Trump’s surrogates urge people to sacrifice their lives to resuscitate the economy, they aren’t just protecting his reelection prospects; they’re advancing a culture war fueled by resentment toward people who’ve long been understood as unworthy. It’s why Trumpist protesters brandishing the Confederate flag can storm the Michigan capitol calling on the governor to rescind her stay-at-home orders and have the emblem not seem incongruous. It diminishes the capacity for dissonance felt by Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who, in a bid to reduce voter turnout and boost partisan advantage, forced April’s only in-person election; standing before TV cameras on Election Day, draped in biohazard protective gear, in a state whose pandemic experience is distinguished by its rate of black death, Vos lied to his constituents, “You are incredibly safe to go out.”

Deception that obscures inequality isn’t just expedient. It infuses tragedy with a tacit moral dimension, where the worst suffering is presumed to be reserved for those who deserve it — whether by being too poor, too black, too proximate to either. When Hurricane Katrina decimated sections of New Orleans in 2005, it seamlessly merged this sentiment with the region’s racist social structure, which, as elsewhere, held that black people were owed little more than the bottom of almost every social indicator. This was evident in the images that emerged of black residents’ suffering and the numbers that gave them context. In the Lower Ninth Ward, black people screamed for salvation from rooftops, floodwaters rising about them, as black corpses floated down waterlogged avenues and black prisoners were left in their cells to drown. President George W. Bush, who would later describe Katrina as “one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history,” couldn’t be bothered to cut his vacation short and return to Washington to address it, to say nothing of the city itself.

Polling showed that the racist neglect this behavior signaled was recognized widely by black Americans but denied by white ones — 66 percent of black people felt the government’s response would’ve been more urgent had the victims been mostly white, compared to 17 percent of whites, according to the Pew Research Center. The evidence kept mounting. As mostly black residents were displaced to every corner of the country, avaricious developers swooped in to remake New Orleans in the whiter, wealthier image that local politicos and business leaders had long desired but were now starting to articulate in more explicit terms. By 2010, the city had lost 175,000 black residents, 75,000 of whom never came back, and elected its first white mayor in three decades. By 2013, four of the city’s biggest public-housing complexes had been torn down and replaced by rental units, the city’s black middle class had been gutted, and New Orleans more closely resembled the demographic vision fomented in Katrina’s wake: from 66 percent black to 59 percent.

What happens when this magnitude of crisis befalls the entire country? There’s a liberal impulse to treat these disasters as emancipatory, freeing us from the illusion of an equitable status quo, the better to pursue the real thing with our vision unclouded. This might be true for some, though whether their awakening produces the requisite policy response is less clear. I’d say, in fact, it’s doubtful. The reality thus far, rather than solidarity, has overwhelmingly been individuals left to manage the fallout alone, in many cases owing to the absence of infrastructure whereby they might help one another. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin dump thousands of gallons of milk a day, citing less need from schools and restaurants, while food-pantry lines in San Antonio and Dallas stretch for blocks, and there’s no public entity to connect the two. People died in the Easter tornadoes — dozens, mostly in Mississippi and Georgia — but for those who survived, prospects for a full recovery remain allocated along familiar and predictable lines.

I was asleep when one of the tornadoes missed our house by a handful of miles. That it charted its particular path, sparing my family but killing others, and leaving others still with spoiled food stockpiles and home damage they might never recoup, taught me little about tornadoes except that they behave like tornadoes — that is, they function in ways that are neither malicious nor cosmically edifying on their own terms, even as they cause tremendous damage to humans. It’s not personal for them. How societies mitigate the pain they cause at the margins is far more revealing — how much we invest, as Americans, in catching the vulnerable when the floor is ripped from beneath them. We may tell ourselves the pandemic is asking this question of us, but if we had the courage to look clearly, the answer was evident long before this crisis: in how our society distributes suffering, the stories we tell to make it compatible with our national self-regard; how aggressively so many insist on overlooking the foreseeable. The depth of havoc that the coronavirus wreaks on its inevitable victims was, and is, within America’s capacity to determine. We have few insights into the path it’s cutting today that we haven’t had for years and that we weren’t already ignoring.

*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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