Armed and Unmasked: Whiteness at the Core of a Public Health Crisis

 

 

 

A special thanks to our Patreon community for supporting us through this difficult time and making it possible to keep this content free for everyone.

 

White Supremacy and the Covid crisis aren’t separate. They’re linked. 

Defunding public health services and deregulating gun ownership have been catastrophic for public health and yet, the majority of white voters support exactly those policies. The spectacle of hundreds of mostly white, unmasked Trump supporters crammed into indoor rally venues during a pandemic exemplifies this phenomenon. In this interview, conducted just days before the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, physician and public health researcher Jonathan Metzl describes how American racism sabotages our public health system and costs millions of lives in a suicidal way. Metzl talks about the deadly role of Donald Trump and the conclusions he’s drawn about how any of this can be turned around.

 

Jonathan Metzl is a professor of sociology and psychiatry, and the director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is called Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.

 

For more on the Covid-19 crisis, check out our Forward Thinking on Covid-19 series.

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Jonathan Metzl:

This ideology of whiteness means making a decision that’s ultimately going to be horrific for everybody’s health, including your own.

Jonathan Metzl:

Because of their idea that undeserving immigrants and minorities are going to benefit from the same system. And ultimately what they do is they undermine the infrastructure of counties and then States and now, as we’re seeing the entire country

Laura Flanders:

Still coming up on the Laura Flanders show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done, take a back seat To the people who are doing it. Welcome.

Laura Flanders:

As COVID cases rise across the US South and West, a lot of Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters seem adamantly determined to assert their right to put their health at risk for that politics. It all makes you wonder about the politics of political affiliation and belief. And it put me in mind of a conversation I had with Jonathan Metzl, public health researcher and the author of Dying of Whiteness. Just what is it that draws hundreds of people to support politicians and policies that end up shortening their lives? Metzl says if we don’t talk about racism and racial attitudes head on, we’re never going to get to the bottom of the problem or turn this situation around. Here’s Metzl in one of our very special recorded at home conversations at the height of the COVID epidemic, speaking to me in early May of 2020.

Laura Flanders:

About a year ago, I was traveling Alabama with my friend Mab Siegrist who also writes a lot about whiteness and blackness in American history. And we heard on the radio about what happened when you were giving a reading from your latest book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. Can you just take me back to that moment for you and what happened?

Jonathan Metzl:

Right. Well, first, thank you. It’s really great to be here and I’m delighted we’re having this conversation. My book had just come out. I was giving different talks and that week I was giving a talk at the anti-racist book festival in DC that week. And I was in this bookstore, Politics and Prose, really just talking about the book. And it was a pretty remarkable setting. It was a very full bookstore, people were all around and we were having, I think, a really productive conversation. And one of the people who was in the audience was actually a very elderly gentleman who was one of the people who helped my father and my grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany. He stood up, he didn’t know our family, but he had stood up and said, I will be a host family for these people I don’t even know and help them get into the United States. They had been displaced persons for about 10 years. And the point I was making in the talk at that moment was this is what America is like when it’s at its best, its most confident, its most generous, its most powerful. When we stand up for people in need and we model for the world the true meaning of our democracy. So I was acknowledging this man who was in his mid 80s.

Jonathan Metzl:

And at that moment I looked up into the back of the store and into the procession behind everybody. I could see them, nobody else could, but a stream of 10 people and it was kind of trouble from the minute it started happening. They all had the kind of same kind of uniform. They all had a particular kind of haircut like shaved. I shouldn’t make fun of anybody’s hair obviously, but shaved on one side and flipped over on the other side. And they all had bullhorns and they just marched up to the front of the store, took over the entire space.

Jonathan Metzl:

So in other words, exactly the opposite of the point that we were just talking about. It was a kind of traumatic five minutes, but at first it was very frightening and then people started shouting trying to shout them down. They left the store and then we just had I think a remarkable conversation. I mean there were a couple of hundred people there and we just had a conversation and we just said, here are two versions of America.

Jonathan Metzl:

One is represented by this gentlemen and kind of what we can be if we model for the world the power of our ideals and the other is what we just heard, which has also been a prevalent stream in America, which is this idea of a white kind of purity, this kind of false history that America is aboriginally white and has kind of coursed through things. And so it led to our conversation, which unfortunately ties into the bigger conversation we’re having now as a country, which is, are we democratic and communal and based in public health for everyone, or are we privileging particular kinds of bodies, particular kinds of privilege.

Laura Flanders:

Let me ask you how you think about that moment in the context of this one, because if ever we were brought up short by our failings as a society, I think this is one of those moments.

Jonathan Metzl:

I just keep thinking when this virus hit, everybody in the world was equally vulnerable in a certain way because we had no immunity as a species, we still don’t. And so this was a moment for everybody to band together. What we’ve seen over the course of this pandemic is that the pandemic is highlighting existing social inequities. Inequities by race, by socioeconomic class. And in a way I think the societies that come out of this the strongest are going to be the ones that say this virus has put a mirror up to us and it’s challenged us to be better on a structural, political, racial level because it’s showing us how no one is safe until everyone is safe. I think the societies that come out of this the weakest are going to be the ones that are the most tribal. And unfortunately I think what we’re seeing, at least in the rhetoric so far, has been that the kinds of protests that happened at that bookstore are similar to the ones that are happening in these kinds of open up, don’t wear a mask, bring your AR-15, storm the state house in Michigan or in Wisconsin or other places.

Jonathan Metzl:

That doesn’t represent anything close to a majority of opinion in the United States, but most other people are afraid. They’re staying at home, they’re wearing masks. So it’s not like that represents all the white people or all Americans. But, I do think that that ideology is seizing on this moment to kind of weaponize the virus in a way that puts very problematic racial ideologies in the front. And I think portends badly, not just for this moment, but for our ability to come together, to fight this horrible disease in the longterm.

Laura Flanders:

Clearly you’re saying there is psychology here we can’t ignore. And the resentment comes up for me when I think of how much bending over backwards we as a society do to try to understand white people and have done, especially since the election of Donald Trump. And there is a population and a group of particularly young people who say, forget it, let those old people die. We’ll move right along. Why did we spend research dollars and time focusing on the most regressive people in our society when, as you started by saying, they get a lot more public attention already than they deserve in small protest groups and so on.

Jonathan Metzl:

I’ll start with the last part of the question and then work backwards because I do think it’s important to recognize that that communities of color are suffering and dying exponentially right now. And they’re doing so not because of some underlying biological reason. It’s because of structural decisions about resources, about infrastructure, about tax base, education, all these things that we have made as a society that evolve out of the unequal society that we’ve built. And so in a way, this idea of very particular majority populations being the most vulnerable overlooks the damage that those ideologies are doing on a material to communities of color right now. With that being said, I also think that we’ve oversimplified what those ideologies are. And so if we actually want to speak together across political divides in some kind of generative way, I do think it’s incumbent on us to think about common ideals.

Jonathan Metzl:

It’s not like we’re just completely either painted blue or red in a particular way. It’s at the conduits of how we converse with each other right now, like Twitter, as a great example, encourage us to fight with each other. Polarization is big bucks for corporations and other kinds of things. And so in a way it’s kind of like, how do we work backward? How do we work backward from that? And it’s really obviously a complicated approach, but on one hand we have to continually practice anti-racism to think about the work of Ibram Kendi and others. And at the same time, how can we form common cause against a common enemy right now, the coronavirus. And I say that because just think about what’s happened over the past couple of months, we all started at ground zero. And all of a sudden, all of these things, like masks as a perfect example, or even public health information, all these kinds of things, they’ve been weaponized in the service of polarization in ways that make it harder for us to come together.

Jonathan Metzl:

And so I think we need to fight back strategies, not just against the other side, but against the ways in which two months ago, nobody gave a hoot about a mask, it was a mask and now it’s a symbol of all these things. And so how do we strategize fighting back against that? Because those are the things that divide us against each other and make common solutions incredibly difficult.

Laura Flanders:

Let’s go back to your book and the roots of it. You’re a public health researcher, also a clinician. You decide to look at what is happening in as you report it, Heartland America. But you’re very clear. The Heartland is not all one race, not all one opinion, not all one party, not all one perspective. Talk about what were the kind of the structure of your investigation?

Jonathan Metzl:

Well, I didn’t think that I was going to start out, honestly, writing a book even about whiteness. I thought that I was writing a book about why America couldn’t get with the rest of the world and have universal health care. And so the project started really in the aftermath of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. It wasn’t a perfect bill by any means, I thought about the Affordable Care Act as kind of like your iPhone 1.0 or Atari Pong or something like that, like a technology that was put out in the world that was going to be improved on. But the thing is the Affordable Care Act was really intervening into a dramatic problem we had, which was under insurance, under treatment, and also people were going bankrupt because they couldn’t afford medical care.

Jonathan Metzl:

And so I was living in, I am living in Tennessee, but I was in Tennessee at that time, I had just moved to Tennessee and I thought, here’s this great bill that’s going to really help people. Tennessee has very poor health outcomes, but unfortunately people were being told, this is a racist plot by Obama, the African witch doctor and all these kinds of things. And it really led people who needed medical treatment to go out and reject literally their own healthcare. I talked to people as part of this initial project who were literally on death’s doorstep, who told me I’m not going to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. It’s a quote I reproduced in the book, as somebody told me, I’m not signing up for any program that’s going to benefit Mexicans and welfare . And so it was this powerful moment for me, just thinking how strong is this ideology of whiteness, of what it means to be white, that someone who really needs medical attention in the most existential ways is instead going to reject this because of their idea that undeserving immigrants and minorities are going to benefit from the same system. And it just started to kind of cascade for me about thinking what are other examples where this idea of what it means to be white means making a decision that’s ultimately going to be horrific for everybody’s health, including your own.

Laura Flanders:

Are you only talking about people who don’t like black people, don’t like Mexicans, have explicitly racist kind of opinions?

Jonathan Metzl:

I’m going to make clear that I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about all white people, I’m not talking about whiteness as a biological category, or even as an identity category. What I’m talking about is the power of a particular strain of American politics that is anti-immigrant, anti-government, pro-gun and all the other things we’re seeing playing out right now that really took a foothold really in the aftermath of the election of President Obama, the first African American president. This was being driven by the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, other kinds of groups, and it basically tapped into some of the more problematic racist lineages of this country. And basically these were very fringe positions for quite a long time. But what happened is it kind of mobilized the resentment of what it meant to have a black president into a political movement that really became much more powerful in the South.

Jonathan Metzl:

And then as we’re seeing with the Trump administration, gain influence over the entire country. And so it really was less important to me. I didn’t go around asking people were you or were you not racist individually, really the risk factor was, did you vote for, or live in a state or County, or the politicians who got elected did things like refuse to expand Medicaid or made it easy for everyone to get a gun, or eviscerated the budgets for public health, for public education and public schools, all of these politics were based in a kind of idea that the social welfare state was going to benefit other people. And ultimately what they did is they undermined the infrastructure of counties and then States and now, as we’re seeing the entire country.

Laura Flanders:

There is a sort of suicidal aspect of all this, but you put your finger on it. When you look into the death statistics around white male suicides, specifically gun suicides, extraordinary data and data that your book reminded me the Federal Government has not been allowed to research or study since 1996.

Jonathan Metzl:

I live every day with honestly, the power of what that research felt like. I was honored enough to be able to speak with people across the Midwest and across the South who were living in what they called pro-gun communities. So they have basically promoted this idea that you needed a gun in order to be a citizen, you needed a gun in order to be protected. But what I saw was that there were dramatic rises in risk factors, in a way of bringing a gun into their home a lot of times was leading to dramatic under reported rates of suicide and partner violence, and other factors like that, that were happening in these households and that there was no data on it.

Jonathan Metzl:

It’s very similar to what we’re seeing now with the pandemic, very little data because it was so political and anytime anybody would try to say, Hey, look, guns are great, but let’s get some training here. Let’s get some help. Let’s figure out what’s a safe way to store a gun, the NRA and other people would swoop in and say no way, to give an inch is to give a yard. And so, in a way, people were being sold this idea that to be white and to be a Midwesterner was to never ask questions about gun safety or gun ownership, even when it was having these horrific effects and effects that again, like the pandemic were not being reported or quantified for political reasons.

Laura Flanders:

The data that you’d find is extraordinary. And from 2009 to 2015, non-Hispanic white men account for nearly 80% of all gun suicides in the US, despite representing less than 35% of the total population.

Jonathan Metzl:

Think about the pandemic. The pandemic, one thing that the US government did in conjunction with gun manufacturers was to sure make it easy for everyone to rush out and get a gun. The best way to get people to run out and get guns is to say there aren’t going to be that many guns or Obama or somebody who’s going to seize your guns, there aren’t going to be that many guys left. And so really what happened was they created this idea that there was a scarcity and people rushed out and they bought, I think it was an 800% rise in guns in many of these States and brought them into their homes. So think about the risk factor here. Here are new gun owners bringing guns into their home at a very stressful moment and a moment when everybody’s social isolating and they’re back in their home. And there are kids in the homes and things like that. So it’s just a dramatic increase in risk, which if people were looking at the data, would have been something I think they would have thought twice about it.

Laura Flanders:

One of the paragraphs in the introduction that I think sums up things very beautifully is when you’re talking about how backlash conservativism, the sort of politics that you saw arising after the election of Obama, how that translates into backlash governance, which in some ways is what we’re seeing now. And you write: “The white body that refuses treatment rather than supporting a system that might benefit everyone then becomes a metaphor for and a parable of the threatened decline of the larger nation, rather than landing a man on the moon, curing polio, inventing the internet or promoting structures of world peace, a dominant strain of the electorate voted in politicians whose platforms of American greatness were built on embodied forms of demise. Demise you can put your finger on, that you can see and touch and document.”

Laura Flanders:

Talking about how we move beyond this is how I’d like to spend the rest of our time, Jonathan. On our show, we try to talk about how do you shift power? And you make a case very strongly that in denying or ignoring some of this psychiatry and sociology that you’ve reported on in this book, we fail to make the progress we need to be making. It’s not easy, obviously. You’re not the only person out there in health sciences who’s trying to figure this out, but what have you learned about doing this right and doing this wrong? Scolding people, making fun of them, clearly is not the answer.

Jonathan Metzl:

I think the greatest skill going forward is not to shout at each other, it’s to try to think about how can we come together in the face of a very common threats and in a way what we need now is more efforts to nationally mobilize against polarization in a way. Unfortunately, the kinds of messages that I talk about in the book become stereotypes. As I said before, it wasn’t like every single person I met was an uninformed racist kind of person. Many people were just trying to live their lives. And I did become frustrated because of what I did find when I went and talked to people was for the most part, not across the board, but for the most part, when you actually start to talk to people in the real world, they’re much more complicated than they seem on social media, on Twitter, where it’s like, Oh, either you’re red or you’re blue.

Jonathan Metzl:

Somebody benefits by saying that we are just one way or another, but when we lose the ability to collaborate, and so in a way I’ve been trying since the book to think about different examples of places where we actually might try to bridge some of these divides, instead of feeling a kind of self justification and realizing that we are on some kind of moral high ground. Ironically and tragically, the paperback just came out last week and I wrote the conclusion, there’s a new afterward. It was all from well before the pandemic and it was actually an optimistic conclusion because of what I wrote was that there are examples of a new kind of bipartisan politics emerging. I was looking for example, at the gubernatorial race in Kentucky and the gubernatorial race in Louisiana, two examples where centrist Democrats basically built broad coalitions by getting away from jargon, just talking to people about everyday decisions.

Jonathan Metzl:

And what I’ve been seeing over the course of the pandemic is that those centrist coalitions, whether or not they’re centrist or liberal or conservative, I don’t care. It’s more that they have the tie in of a bunch of different kinds of people. And they’ve been much more effective, I think, than very polarized States at mobilizing responses. Louisiana is a perfect example. And so before the pandemic, I actually was feeling quite optimistic that there was some kind of sense across the country that we’re kind of tired of all this polarization and people coming together to say, how can we kind of work this out because I’m tired of being right or wrong, I want to fix it. But the pandemic, understandably, has brought out our worst fears and also our worst politics.

Laura Flanders:

The deep sort of thread that the manipulators of whiteness are able to sort of pull on over and over again is this fear of scarcity. And this sense, W.E.B. Dubois wrote about it, that there really is a benefit to whiteness. It might not be great, but it might be a little. And I think that in a moment of pandemic, we’re also seeing a re-inscription of this sense of there’s a scarcity of masks, a scarcity of treatment, a scarcity of healthcare. Do you fear that that aspect of the benefits of whiteness, the boon of whiteness, actually gets stronger in this time?

Jonathan Metzl:

First of all, you’re exactly right. And I make this very clear in the book and all the work I’ve done since then, that really these politics of whiteness, of the sense of a threat to whiteness, they far and away have the most devastating effects on communities of color who are put at risk by these very politics and the decisions that emerge from them. So at the same time, I mean just think about all the lessons of the pandemic. If there’s virus circulating anywhere, then everybody’s at risk. We’re connected and dependent on everything. On your doctor, your dentist, but also on your Uber driver, your food delivery person, all these kinds of things. So we’re all connected. And in a way, the true lesson of this pandemic should have been let’s strengthen the connections. Let’s strengthen the protections for the weakest links that we’ve now built in our own system.

Jonathan Metzl:

And I think there are a lot of historical examples of countries that face these kind of traumatic and traumatizing moments and they realized that lesson. During World War II, for example, when people in the UK were under threat of bombing and war and starvation, they made a very wise decision, which was let’s give everybody equal access to food, let’s get everybody access to healthcare because we don’t want to have a much bigger problem. And so it turned out that when the UK government did that, lifespans started to increase during the middle of the second World War, during a war because they basically democratized access to food and healthcare. I think the societies that recognize that same language during the pandemic are going to come out of this with a much stronger sense, but unfortunately it’s not just of course, race.

Jonathan Metzl:

It’s all about socio . Societies that do what we’re doing at least right now, which is to make things less democratic, more polarized, more unequal, are just going to see much more negative effects, not just from the health effects of the virus, but also the economic fallout. And so again, this is kind of goes back to the sense that we really need to develop skills for talking across political divides in ways that might be more communal, more public health related, and again, not to excuse overt racism, but I do think that the failure to be able to talk about some of these issues right now is leading us into, I think, dangerous echo chambers and I think that’s in a way we almost need a New Deal or a Marshall Plan for polarization in a way.

Laura Flanders:

I want to thank you, Jonathan Metzl, really a pleasure having you on the show. Jonathan Metzl is a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, his latest book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland is just out in paperback. Thanks for joining us.

Jonathan Metzl:

Thanks so much.

 

 

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your name here
Please enter your comment!