Certain segments of the country that are well versed on our systemic oppression anticipated the health disparities that COVID-19 have created between communities of color and white communities. However, it has left many Americans speechless.
As of mid-April, 75 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Washington, D.C. have been Black. In New York City, the death rates in low-income communities of color are 10 times greater than throughout the rest of the city. Similar stories have manifested across the country.
These disparities are inevitable and shocking at the same time because the United States neither cares to define or adequately confront the destructive nature of our society. American life has normalized these divisions while forcing us to imagine they do not exist.
We are left to confront a deadly contagion without the words to describe its impact or the language to create solutions. As a philosopher, I’ve relied on one word to articulate COVID-19’s impact on American life: ethnocide, or the destruction of a people’s culture while keeping their bodies.
American ethnocide prevents communities of color from taking the necessary safety precautions against coronavirus. This makes them more susceptible and denies them adequate healthcare to combat the disease.
European colonizers waged a centuries-long ethnocidal campaign via the Transatlantic slave trade. They aimed to break the soul or spirit of African people, but not the bodies fundamental to the chattel slavery system they created in the Americas.
Europeans actively and intentionally worked to destroy African people’s culture and shatter their identity. They prohibited native languages and religions. They broke up families and tribal bonds. Africans were no longer allowed to identify as Malian, Igbo, or Yoruba. They instead had dehumanizing, cultureless names such as nigger, colored, and a host of others forced upon them by colonizers.
Tragically, ethnocide still shapes society. Our racial and economic divisions derive from it, and COVID-19 exposes the systemic aspects even more.
Because of the ethnocidal foundation laid hundreds of years ago, the oppressed are both the least valued and the most essential piece of a society and economy. The oppressors, who derive purpose from their “elevated” status, accumulate wealth from the unpaid or underpaid labor of the oppressed.
Many Americans of color, work in the under-paid, yet essential professions that, decades ago, Black people had been forced to take. During the pandemic, these workers are not able to shelter in place. Americans of color disproportionately work in child care and home care. Many also work in factories and on fields, processing food and goods that probably won’t reach their communities. They of color deliver our mail and fix our roads.
Some people of color who have been affected by the coronavirus cannot afford health insurance. They also have pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes that are connected to the generational stress and malnourishment that comes with being forced to live in poverty for hundreds of years.
The United States’ privatization of healthcare has created a system based on one’s ability to afford health insurance, and not one that provides all Americans with that need. The leaders in this country are incapable of addressing a health crisis that impacts all of us because our ethnocidal society only aspires to serve a few.
American officials prefer to imagine that equality exists because reckoning with the previously unimaginable scale of our systemic inequality has long been a pill too hard to swallow. COVID-19 exposes the scope and morbidity of our ethnocidal society.
The first step in addressing the problem is naming and defining it. After that, you can confront and rectify it, and prevent its continuation. In doing so, you will also be able to envision a better society that is not governed by the perpetual normalization of ethnocidal oppression.
America has a long way to go and a hard road to travel because our entire society consists of normalizing atrocities while celebrating our supposed excellence. However, COVID-19 should make it abundantly clear that a society under ethnocide is not a place anyone should want to live.