Michael Meeropol: The Kindling Smoldering For Years Has Just Caught Fire! | WAMC

Michael Meeropol: The Kindling Smoldering For Years Has Just Caught Fire!

Jun 5, 2020

Like most Americans, I have been heartbroken by the loss of over 110,000 of our fellow citizens to the coronavirus over the past four months. I have also been outraged and anguished by the continued killings of unarmed black people at the hands of police or vigilantes. 

Finally, as I argued in a recent commentary, I am ashamed because of the suffering essential workers have been forced to endure in order to assure my personal health and comfort. These people risk their lives on the front lines of the medical fight to treat COVID-19 patients. Others are being forced to work in unsafe conditions in warehouses or meat-packing plants because they will not be eligible for unemployment insurance if they stay home out of fear for their health.  [On the meat-packing plants, see Meeropol, “‘Essential’ Workers at Meat-Packing Plants Being Treated as Expendable.”  May 21, 2020 available at https://www.wamc.org/post/michael-meeropol-essential-workers-meat-packing-plants-being-treated-expendable]

In an earlier commentary delivered on April 2, [see “Now Let us Praise the People who Keep Delivering the Goods,” available at https://www.wamc.org/post/michael-meeropol-now-let-us-praise-people-who-keep-delivering-goods] I celebrated these essential workers.   These are the folks who make sure my electricity still runs, my food and prescription drugs gets delivered, and I can get gas for my car  if I need it.   Meanwhile, I can sit in relative comfort and relative safety.  Despite my advanced age (at 77) I am less likely to get COVID-19 than an immigrant 30 year old working in a meat-packing plant or a 40 year old taking mass transit to work as an orderly in a hospital.   I also have not suffered a single dollar decline in income because I have Medicare and Social Security.

AND ---the impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color.  The black death rate in the 40 states and DC that report the race of the victim is 2.4 times the white rate.  [That was as of May 27, 2020.  For details including death rates for other ethnic groups see https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.    ]   

Because Trump first disbanded the task force set up by the Obama Administration to plan for a coming pandemic and then ignored warnings about COVID-19 for two months, when it finally struck the United States we had to virtually lock down the economy in March.   Here is what I wrote about that in my March 18 commentary:

“It is no wonder that the Trump Administration, finding an entire task force within the Department of Homeland Security devoted to dealing with world-wide health emergencies would target that group for elimination.   When challenged about that decision at a recent press conference (March 13, 2020), Trump denied having anything to do with that decision.  [One can watch the exchange with the outstanding PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor which includes his denial of knowledge here:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2020/mar/13/coronavirus-trump-slams-reporter-for-nasty-question-over-pandemic-response-team-video]

However, three weeks earlier at a February 27 press briefing, Trump had actually revealed his reasoning:   “I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.  When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”   [That entire briefing can be accessed at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-conference/]”  (End of quote from the March 18 commentary)

Because we had to lock down the economy, we had a very deep dive into recession.  This economic crisis caused black unemployment to jump from a low of 5.8 in February to over 16% in April (which was higher than the national average).   [For more detailed data see https://www.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/]

It is also true that people of color were disproportionately represented in “essential” occupations.   This is true for agricultural workers and warehouse workers many of whom are immigrants --- many of them undocumented. It is true for grocery store workers, or aides in hospitals and nursing homes.   Add to this the underlying health disparities that put people of color at risk and the result is the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color.

[For details about the disproportionate representation of blacks in “essential” industries, see Hayley Brown and Shawn Fremstad, “Racial Inequality Among Workers in Frontline Industries: Black Workers are Overrepresented and Undercompensated,”  Economic Policy Institute, June 4, 2020 available at  https://cepr.net/racial-inequality-among-workers-in-frontline-industries-black-workers-are-overrepresented-and-undercompensated/?emci=91fdc6cf-9ea6-ea11-9b05-00155d039e74&emdi=ea64877c-9fa6-ea11-9b05-00155d039e74&ceid=4611112]

So far, we have focused on the differential death rate and the differential economic consequences for communities of color as the pandemic struck the US.   (Recall that many of the impacts of COVID-19 could have been blunted if not totally prevented had the Trump Administration taken the most basic steps necessary to plan for it – from not disbanding the task force to actually being attentive to the warnings Trump and his administration received beginning in January.  For details see Ursula Perano, “10 times Trump and his administration were warned about coronavirus,” Axios, April 12, 2020, available at https://www.axios.com/trump-coronavirus-warnings-46ea8006-2e19-4810-82c1-0f10f4f9aa97.html)

But now we have the rubbing of salt in the wound.  As the essential workers --- disproportionately people of color --were being serenaded and cheered nightly by relatively well-off people sheltering in their apartments, the black folks among them remained targets of racists ---  the vigilantes who murdered Ahmaud Arbery--- the cops who murdered George Floyd.

[For the Ahmaud Arbery story, see Richard Fausset,“What We Know About the Shooting Death of Ahmaud Arbery,” The New York Times (May 22, 2020) available at  https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-shooting-georgia.html.]

This confluence of injustices --- the killer virus, the economic meltdown and the dangers of “living while black” should one encounter the wrong police officer has finally boiled over.   The kindling has been sitting there smoldering for decades --- one could argue ever since the racists found a home in the Republican Party.   Even the Presidency of Barack Obama could not stem the tide of white racist resentment at black progress.

Such resentment fueled the George Wallace Presidential campaign in 1968, the success of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” in the same year, the ease with which too many accepted Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype of poor black women, the success of the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign, the support for so-called “welfare reform” signed by Bill Clinton, and finally the belief by too many of our fellow citizens that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

[I lived through every one of these experiences. What follows is an extensive bibliographical exposition – some readers may want to skip all of this.   For those interested in following up on the Wallace campaign, here are two full length book treatments of it:    Carlson, Jody (1981). George C. Wallace and the Politics of Powerlessness: The Wallace Campaigns for the Presidency, 1964-1976. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.   Carter, Dan T. (1995). The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster.   The Wikipedia page for the 1968 Wallace for President campaign is pretty accurate.  Richard Nixon won the 1968 election because he was able to limit Wallace’s electoral vote victories to only five states:  Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.   Of the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, the Democratic Candidate Hubert Humprey was only able to win Texas while Nixon took Tennessee, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Florida.   This was the fruition of Nixon’s “southern strategy” explained by Republican campaign theorist Kevin Phillips in a classic book The Emerging Republican Majority.  (An updated edition of that book was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press with a new Preface by Phillips and an introduction by the historian Sean Wilentz.)  For some interesting analysis of the impact of Phillips’ book and the subsequent migration of south ern whites from the Democratic to the Republican party see Grohsgal, Dan and Kevin M. Kruse, “How the Republican Majority Emerged, Fifty years after the Republican Party hit upon a winning formula, President Trump is putting it at risk,” The Atlantic, August 6, 2019, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/emerging-republican-majority/595504/  It is true that within the Nixon Administration there was controversy over whether to pursue southern voters explicitly.   (The policy appeared to be a failure with the victory of Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Presidential election but Reagan took almost the entire South in 1980 and did win all of the South in 1984.)     On Reagan and the “welfare queen” story, see “‘Welfare Queen’ Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign,” The New York Times, February 15, 1976:  51.   For a more scholarly perspective, see Gilens, Martin, “The News Media and the Racialization of Poverty,” in Why Americans Hate Welfare:  Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.  Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion.   Chicago, U. of Chicago P (2000):   102-32.   (I personally spent the decades of the 1980s and 1990s arguing with my students against their stereotypes of welfare recipients.  Virtually every assertion made about welfare recipients – that most of them stayed on welfare for 8-10 years, that they had children in order to increase their welfare payments that the generosity of welfare payments increased unemployment – was not true empirically but it didn’t matter.  Such stereotypes became part of the culture.  (And the majority of my students believed it.)  For an interesting discussion of that issue, one of my favorite sources was a chapter in a book written in the 1980s called The Mean Season, The Attack on the Welfare State.   The book was edited by Fred Block and published by Pantheon Books in 1987.   The chapter was entitled “The Contemporary Relief Controversy.”  It was written to refute the factual arguments that were used to support the negative stereotypes of welfare recipients.  Unfortunately, the effort failed and the pressure to “reform” welfare became impossible to resist.  President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act in 1996 which abolished one of the main foundations of the American version of the welfare state, the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  (Thus a guaranteed social safety net for poor women and children was abolished replaced by a time-limited program with all sorts of punitive requirements.   This law ended up saving money on welfare programs but did not end the poverty of single women and their children.)  For a cri de coeur by a member of the Clinton Administration who resigned in disgust when Clinton signed the bill, see Edelman, Peter “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, 43 (1997).   In 1988, an official in the George H.W. Bush campaign, Lee Atwater, vowed he would make Willie Horton a household name.   Horton was a prisoner in Massachusetts and had been part of a prison furlough program in place in that state while Bush’s campaign opponent Michael Dukakis had been Governor.  While on a furlough Horton had raped a white woman and stabbed her partner.   The narrator tells the story of Horton’s crimes while pictures of Bush and Dukakis as well as Horton’s mug shot were flashed on the screen.   The narrator intoned “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.”  Violent crime has always worn a black face in the American consciousness and this ad worked very well.  [For details, including a link to the ad itself, see https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/01/politics/willie-horton-ad-1988-explainer-trnd/index.html.]   While dying of a brain tumor in 1991, Atwater issued an apology to Dukakis for the Willie Horton ad.   For details, see “Gravely Ill, Atwater Offers Apology”  The New York Times, January 13, 1991, (Section 1, P. 16) available at https://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/13/us/gravely-ill-atwater-offers-apology.html.  Unfortunately, he could not “unring” that bell.   Finally, it might be valuable to remember that Donald Trump burst onto the national scene in 2011 because he adopted the so-called “birther” position – that there was something fishy about Barack Obama’s alleged birth in Hawaii.  Trump claimed (falsely of course) on national TV that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out Obama’s bona fides.  Trump claimed his researchers were finding “amazing information” about Obama’s real birth – information that in fact never existed.  Despite that fact that Trump’s admitted in September, 2016 that Obama had been born in Hawaii, in 2017, 51 percent of Republicans believed Obama had been born in Kenya.]

As one can see from the list of successful political uses of anti-black racism in very recent American history (every one of these successful uses of racism occurred after the Civil Rights revolution of 1964 and 65), black Americans continue to carry a unique burden.   The one good thing to come out of the national convulsions that have followed the “last straw” murder of George Floyd has been the wholesale participation of a rainbow of colors in solidarity with black Americans.  Even with the threat of a COVID-19 infection facing those who join demonstrations, many white, Latino, Asian, and Native people have joined with African Americans in a show of solidarity.   That’s the good sign.

The danger sign is that Trump is trying to smear the entire justice movement as terrorists and threatening to unleash the army on them --- as he did using police on a peaceful group of citizens across the street from the White House so he could be shown striding purposefully over to a church to hold up a bible for the cameras.  His lapdog Attorney General has blamed a group of people who call themselves ANTIFA (for “anti-fascist”) for organizing arson and property destruction.   Trump has claimed he will be designating ANTIFA as a terrorist organization.  Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has explicitly justified the use of the regular army to “put down” unrest in the streets by invoking the specter of hordes of ANTIFA terrorists destroying property and attacking citizens and law enforcement personnel.  I did a quick google search of ANTIFA and could not find a single example of a fatality caused by any actions by ANTIFA groups. 

Meanwhile, three right-wing extremists who are part of a group attempting to start a new Civil War (they go by the name of “Boogaloo”) were arrested near Las Vegas with explosives and weapons in the car.   According to law enforcement sources, they were planning on setting off the explosives in an effort to foment civil unrest in the context of the demonstrations protesting the murder of George Floyd.   For details see: Igor Derysh, “Group linked to far-right ‘boogaloo’ movement plotted terror attacks against protesters: prosecutors,” Salon, June 4, 2020, available at https://www.alternet.org/2020/06/group-linked-to-far-right-boogaloo-movement-plotted-terror-attacks-against-protesters-prosecutors/

Despite this, Trump continues to insist that the source of all violence is ANTIFA.  There is no question that Trump and Barr and other would-be authoritarians will try to push that “ANTIFA is dangerous” meme.   Hopefully, the pictures of tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators will convince the majority of the people that smearing the entire movement as anarchic perpetrators of violence is a phony red herring designed to divert our attention from the triple whammy our black fellow citizens are enduring in the current COVID-19 emergency coupled with the pandemic on top of decades of racist violence.   

The comedian Mort Sahl once had a very pithy response to the George Wallace-Richard Nixon argument that “ordinary Americans” had a lot to fear from black criminals: “Why, [Sahl asked] do I always see BLACK bodies?”

Let’s hope the massive rainbow of demonstrators is more representative of the United States than Donald Trump, William Barr, Tom Cotton and the rest of Trump’s enablers.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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