Nuance is possibly the most frequent casualty of the internet age. We forget that there are human beings with complicated lives on the other end of our arguments online. Soon, digital tribalism sets in, and it becomes increasingly difficult to break ranks to point out key issues that are lost in the fray.
Now, add the terror that coronavirus has pumped into the people. Fear has a way of drowning out balanced debate. So, when the people who protest at the state Capitol for a return to economic normality happen to also be right-leaning Republicans, it’s easy to believe that’s the only group who wants it.
Let Facebook tell it: they’re a bunch of gun-toting, deer-hunting, Trump-loving, spoiled white folk who are ignoring the human toll. They’re clearly oblivious to what this disease has done to people of color. After all, COVID-19 is ravaging black communities at an alarmingly disproportionate rate by almost every metric.
Case closed, right? The right-to-work movement is all right-wing. Until you look at footage from India, where the deadline for opening the economy was extended to May 3. I didn’t see a MAGA hat among them. This is global, not just an American political fight.
Indian authorities have been caught on tape brutally enforcing quarantine and social distancing ordinances. Extreme poverty mobilizes people. And it’s easy to forget that the same hunger faced by India’s protesters exists in America, too; and the people it affects are often black.
My work in community activism happens to be centered in an institution that is a cornerstone of the black working class: the black barber shops. Since 2011, Shop Talk Live, Inc. has been using barber shops to organize community forums for action, and for healing. This industry has been hit particularly hard by the lockdowns and quarantines. Often, being a barber is the only legit avenue for an ex-felon to get work.
Due to our draconian employment laws around felons, many of these black men and women have been left no other option. The need is so real that they’re willing to risk, and sadly, lose their lives. Forty-six-year-old barber Eugene Johnson of Brookhaven, Mississippi, passed away from coronavirus after continuing to cut hair.
Many people saw him as an example of willful stubborness in the face of a deadly disease. I see him as symptomatic of the survival dilemma that the economic shutdown has forced upon the most vulnerable class of African Americans.
The American poet Inocencio (Oxygen) Mendoza once said, “If I’m holding two hot coals, how can you tell me which one is colder?” The response to COVID-19 has forced many black Americans to choose between two survival drives.
We’re forced to ask, “Am I more likely to die from sickness or starvation?” The Van Jones narrative of the African American vulnerability in the age of COVID says black folks are dying from this disease so disproportionately, we wouldn’t dream of going back into an open economy. I say that’s a privileged argument.
Don’t let the Politico polls fool you. There are a huge number of us who literally cannot afford for this lockdown to go on much longer, and they’re not the middle class, elderly types who take calls from polling companies.
From barbers to beauticians, bartenders, waitresses, professional singers, event planners, coaches, dancers, even strippers and sex workers, African Americans make up a large percentage of the service and gig economy deemed “non-essential.”
Even among the essential workers, the grocery clerks, the garbage workers, the nurses and fast food employees, a great number of them are African-American. Many would stop working in these dangerous conditions if they could, but they can’t. Tighter lockdown restrictions could leave them filing for unemployment as well.
These are not the kind of professions that allow for huge savings, especially with the rising cost of living. They’re forced to hustle, regardless of what the economy is doing.
To many of what I’ll call the “Hustle Class,” the threat of COVID-19 is existential. It’s out there, and they know it’s dangerous. Yet, the threat remains speculative. These bills are immediate. This rent is real, and so is eviction. The baby crying, lack of diapers, lights cut off and child support bite harder in real life than a virus some see only on television.
To the “Hustle Class,” that supposedly non-essential job was the only thing between them and a return to a life of illegal “hustling.” Lest finger-pointing liberals forget, the crime element in the black community is still very much alive and well, unlike other pockets of America. My community is full of survivors, forced to be ruthless due to the very thing that is driving protesters into the streets all across the world: need!
I’ve seen a lot of shaming of those who want the wheels of the economy to resume rolling, and that shame comes from those who are supposed to defend the downtrodden. Some left-leaning keyboard warriors have been almost as brutal with their words as the Indian government was with their batons in enforcing the need for a lockdown.
This only proves how disconnected from the Hustle Class they really are. Poor black America is holding two hot coals, and you don’t get to tell them which one is colder. There are black men I know who would have been armed at the Capitol steps along with Trump’s supporters except their lack of privilege made doing so virtually out of the question.
The black working class and working poor have seen danger before. It’s nothing new. From nightly gunshots, to crooked cops, to crack cocaine, to street fights, to anxiety and depression, their relationship with peril and death is different than many outsiders understand.
Coronavirus is ravaging our community; what else is new? Some look at a virus’ 3.4% mortality rate vs. the chance of ending up in prison (blacks make up more than one-third of the U.S. prison population), and don’t bat an eye. In fact, they like their odds.
I come from these types, and trust me, it is not wise to stand in their way. They’ll say, “Either I’ll die from the virus someday, or I’ll die from hunger today,” and act accordingly.
Coronavirus has pitted two survival instincts against one another in an existential game of chicken. When bills are due, we’ll see which one swerves first.
Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.
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