– May 8, 2020

Is easing the coronavirus lockdown racist? That’s the newest set of arguments emerging from the activist wings of academia and journalism.

A recent column by the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie attempted to cast the recent wave of anti-lockdown protests as a manifestation of “whiteness,” noting that COVID-19 has hit minority communities disproportionately hard. 

Social media feeds from the academic world contain a flurry of similar sentiments. One “New History of Capitalism” scholar at Georgetown University drew an analogy between easing the lockdown and the operation of a slave ship, suggesting a shared “willingness to tolerate a certain amount of death in the name of the economy.” Another academic from the University of Southern California recently wrote in Vox that protests against the lockdowns were motivated by “white privilege” and “anti-black racism.”

It’s not my aim here to assess the motives of the protesters, save to note that the fact that over 30 million people losing their jobs to the lockdown likely has greater explanatory value for this form of backlash than these critics permit. Many in elite academia and journalism have the luxury of a paycheck for the time being, as well as the ability to do their work from home with only modest disruption. Vast numbers of newly unemployed Americans do not.

At the same time, most academic efforts to cast the lockdown debate along racial lines miss or omit another dimension that belies their critical theory-infused attacks on any attempt to reopen the economy. The very same lockdowns, social distancing mandates, and shelter-in-place orders that these writers defend are also backed by heavy-handed enforcement by the state. And in many cases, that enforcement falls disproportionately on racial minorities, the poor, and people with fewer means to defend themselves.

We saw one of the first examples of this in a video from early April when police violently tackled and dragged an African-American man off of a city bus in Philadelphia for failing to wear a face mask. It later came to light that Philadelphia had no official policy mandating masks on public transportation – it was only a recommendation.

Such incidents, unfortunately, have become commonplace during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Another widely circulated video showed police in New York City violently tackling an African-American man, with one officer even kneeing his head into the concrete. The pretext? Police claimed the man was “in violation of social distancing orders.”

Many in the media and political class, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, seized upon a photo of a protester with a Confederate flag to reinforce the narrative of a racial angle to lockdown and brand all opponents more broadly as “racists.”

Comparatively few noticed the racial overtones at play when a COVID lockdown enforcement action in Greenville, Mississippi targeted several African-American churches for holding drive-in Easter services in their parking lots. Police waited for parishioners to arrive and handed out $500 tickets for lockdown violations, even though most remained in their vehicles and listened to a broadcast service to avoid unnecessary contact. Greenville’s population is about 75% African-American and has a large number of families living below the poverty line, making a $500 fine a substantial financial burden.

After nearly two months of lockdowns, we’re also starting to see quantifiable evidence that minorities are suffering the brunt of enforcement actions.

According to new data released by the Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney’s office, police have arrested 40 people in the borough since mid-March for various lockdown violations. Although the charges were later dropped, the arrests showed clear racial disparities. 35 of the 40 arrested persons were African-American, 4 were Hispanic, and only one was white.

While it is difficult to link these disparities directly to overt racist intentions by the enforcers, they reveal a deeper and more troubling pattern that accompanies the criminalization of lockdown violations. When the government makes routine actions in public susceptible to police enforcement, it places all of society at risk that such enforcement will be carried out through arbitrary, inconsistent, and sometimes even violent or coercive means.

Lockdown enforcements of this type also tend to fall the hardest on those who are least able to defend themselves in the criminal justice system, and who often lack the means to access proper legal defense. In many cities and towns across the United States, this means minority communities and the poor will be hardest hit by excessive lockdown enforcement, just as many of the same people have been the hardest hit by the growing wave of COVID-related layoffs.

Keep that in mind when you see journalists, academics, and internet activists defending the lockdowns from the comforts of their home offices, and sneering at the recently unemployed who venture to point out that the current state of affairs is unsustainable.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

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