The Privilege of Protesting

After two months under stay-at-home order, people across the United States are starting to get antsy. Protests are popping up from Georgia to Michigan, and, in recent weeks, even making their way to Massachusetts. 

Protesters are demanding to be released from lockdown. In their eyes, the government is infringing on basic civil liberties by implementing stay-at-home restrictions, among other COVID-related policies, in response to the pandemic. The protesters have tended to be white and conservative-leaning. Yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags are staples at these events, with “Trump 2020” ones waving closely behind, as well as signs reading, “Quarantine is Unconstitutional” and “I Am a Free Citizen.”

Many have even turned the protests into gun rallies, with gun owners similarly joining the movement against big government. The demographic of the protesters and the message behind these protests indicate a clear alignment with conservative values. However, the politicization of these protests is only one problematic aspect of them. 

Rallies against quarantine and coronavirus restrictions often do not include minorities, which begs the question of why? A divide emerges below the surface of these protests, splitting Americans based on race and privilege and alluding to greater racial injustice still found in this country. 

Graphic courtesy of The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Quite illustrative of the massive racial disparities in this crisis are current unemployment and hospitalization rates. According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Americans are suffering an employment loss unlike any since the Great Depression. In its April report, the Bureau reported that the unemployment rate had climbed to 14.7%, a figure that likely underestimates the true rate. The report notes that surveying employed and unemployed people could not be done as well as in pre-pandemic society, and therefore the numbers likely do not represent the reality of the situation. 

It seems reasonable for protesters to demand freedom based on these statistics. However, the participants of the protests are not the hardest hit. According to the BLS, “Occupations with lower wages are more common in the shutdown sectors than elsewhere in the economy and that higher-paying jobs are less common in those sectors. Consequently, shutdown policies disproportionately affect workers in lower-paying jobs.”

In a subsequent report, the BLS published a graph (pictured above) demonstrating what kind of people work in those lower-paying areas. Black and Hispanic workers are the ones that are most often working in the service industry, or in other lower-paying jobs, as opposed to white and Asian workers, who are observed to hold more professional or managerial positions. Unemployment has hit minority communities much harder than white communities of America, yet minority workers are not the ones out in force protesting restrictions. 

Graphic courtesy of Covid-Net

Hospitalizations similarly demonstrate how minorities are being affected by the novel coronavirus. The number of people, by race, who have been admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 was recorded by the CDC. As demonstrated by the graph above, Black Americans make up the greatest percentage of overall hospitalizations, despite making up only around 14% of the total U.S. population. Hispanic Americans also make up a significant portion of hospitalizations, despite representing 18% of the total U.S. population. Looking at these statistics, we must also keep in mind that Black and Hispanic Americans often face significant barriers to healthcare access and treatment, which means this information may underrepresent the actual number of cases.

These hospitalization reports highlight the problems that have innately made this situation worse for people of color. While many tenants have been given a break from evictions during the pandemic, housing worsens the infection rate for those in the inner city. People of color, dating all the way back to redlining policies, have been forced into more urban areas where pandemic viruses are proven to spread easier

While unemployment has hit people of color the hardest, those who have retained their jobs are fighting to keep them. Amazon workers and other people in essential industries have to go to work and put themselves at risk to get their paycheck. Without doing so, furloughed payments would stack up and put them into financial ruin. Pandemic business shutdowns have negatively affected the minority communities of America far more than white communities. 

The Navajo Nation exemplifies how minorities in America have been treated unequally. Despite being in a rural area, the Native American tribe has experienced more COVID cases than New York City, relative to their total populations. As of May 22, 4,253 cases were confirmed in their territory.  The tribe had not received money from the US government's CARES act, which is set to distribute $8 billion dollars nationwide, yet not “one cent” went to them, as President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo reported to the Washington Post

The people of the Navajo Nation suffer from many of the same difficulties that minorities do in other parts of the U.S. Food deserts, areas without access to proper food supplies, endanger families’ health across the U.S., and the Navajo live in one giant food desert. Shipments coming to their aid with food delivery have been sparse, and government aid even sparser. Once again, the Navajo Nation’s COVID problem brings up greater injustices that have lain dormant in everyday life. Nearly ⅓ of the Navajo Nation does not have access to indoor plumbing, resulting in a spike of COVID cases spread through unwashed hands. African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans—all have experienced far worse conditions than those in White America. 

Protests against restrictions reveal what kinds of people in society feel that they have the ability to protest and what kinds of problems these people feel are worth protesting. For white protestors, “civil liberties” means going to work, visiting a park, or getting a haircut. But for those who are experiencing the worst of the pandemic, far greater liberties are being forgotten. Access to affordable food, safe working conditions, medical insurance, and even the right to feel protected by law enforcement are consistently denied to people of color, while these privileges are taken for granted by those who hold racial power.

Recent police brutality in Minneapolis shows the divide between how white protests are handled compared to those in minority communities. George Floyd, a Black man, died when a white police officer refused to lift his knee off of Floyd's neck during detainment. Videos surfaced of the officer holding Floyd to the street with his body weight while Floyd gasped for air. His death sparked protests at the scene of the crime by local Black people and allies who demanded justice. While white communities protest “civil injustice” in the form of quarantine, this Minneapolis neighborhood demands justice for murder. White armed protests went off without a hitch, while Floyd protests were shut down with tear gas.

Media coverage focuses on the problems of these white protesters—both from critical and supportive standpoints—far more than those of minorities. We are more likely to hear about white conspiracy theorists than the struggle of inner-city living conditions. Stories of police brutality get pushed to the wayside as time goes on, and the economic and health crises faced by people of color are continually ignored. At these times, it's important to scrutinize how the media covers COVID-19, and the problems surrounding it. What kind of people does our society take stock in? Whose problems are more important? From the looks of the recent protests, the answers are crystal clear.

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