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Silence of the Self-Righteous: When will White people take “Personal Responsibility” in the Age of COVID?

For so many years in this country I have heard the “personal responsibility” rant used against the Black community, blaming us for conditions that we had little control over. We have been blamed for so long, that some of us even throw out the ridiculous remark that “we are our own worst enemy.” These things infuriate me. I’m wondering where these arguments about “personal responsibility” are for White people in the resurgence of the coronavirus.

I agree that all of us have some level of control over our decisions, but we do not control the environment around us. We live in a society so rife with racism that people are put into positions where they simply have to react to the daily impacts of their oppression. We react in many different ways. In some instances, the decisions oppressed people make are counterproductive. The great psychiatrist Frantz Fanon refers to this as becoming auto-oppressors.

We see signs of this in many societies across time where people have been oppressed. It is perfectly normal because of a lack of control by oppressed people. The father of Black History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson reminded us in his groundbreaking book The Mis-Education of the Negro how this works.

“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”

For years we’ve heard the constant chirping coming from mostly White people about Black people needing to take “personal responsibility” instead of blaming White society. It became really prominent after Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965. The report commonly called the Moynihan Report took aim at the “tangle of pathologies” impacting Black people’s lived experiences. The report stated that:

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”

Moynihan discussed the shares of black children born out of wedlock as proof that this was the cause of one of the major “pathologies.” The percentage of White children born out of wedlock today is nearly identical to what it was for Black children when the report was written, yet no one makes the same claims about the White family that Moynihan made in 1965 about the Black family.

For years after the Moynihan Report, we heard people calling for Black people to take “personal responsibility.” This included former president Barack Obama and Bill Cosby – before his downfall. White people who want America to take no responsibility for the impact of racism, love to talk about a lack of “personal responsibility” in the Black community. We still hear this language when it comes to conversations about police brutality.

I am wondering when we will hear honest conversations about White people taking “personal responsibility” during this pandemic. Despite the current pandemic killing over a quarter million Americans and approaching one and a half million people worldwide, we have elected officials afraid to say out loud that people need to be quiet and stop complaining about wearing masks. This huge surge in infections in recent months is being driven by ludicrous assumptions that wearing masks and social distancing and not gathering in large groups is somehow draconian. It makes perfect sense to rational people but not to millions of people in this country.

Do I have to say that most of the people making these statements are White? Is it not obvious that the people complaining about and refusing to wear masks are mostly White people? The protests earlier this year against stay-at-home orders were primarily crowds of angry White people. The governors who still refuse to issue masks mandates and order the closure of restaurants and bars know that they have to answer to their mostly White constituents. I argue that these leaders fear the ramifications of telling their constituents the truth because so many have said they have their “rights” and no one can tell them to wear masks.

This is the White percentage of the population in the ten states with the worst outbreaks currently: North Dakota (83.6% white); South Dakota (81.5% white); Wyoming (83.7% white); Iowa (85.1% white); Nebraska (78.4% white); Minnesota (78.9% white); Wisconsin (80.8% white); Montana (85.8% white); Utah (77.7% white) and Kansas (75.4% white). Mask mandates were only recently issued in some of these states: Iowa (November 17); North Dakota (Nov. 14); Utah (November 9). In Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska there are still no mask mandates. In Kansas, 80 of the 105 counties have been allowed to opt out of mask mandates put in place in early July.

There is a clear pattern when you look at the pandemic maps now. Small rural communities in these states are being hammered by the virus. The President and Vice President who have consistently downplayed, and even intimated that the virus is not a concern at all, are standing by watching millions of people being infected and are practically mute on the topic.

President Trump tweeted on November 19 that the “Mortality rate is 85% down!” There is no sensible reason for anyone to say something so untrue. At least one American is dying on average every minute from the coronavirus. We are seeing more than a million new cases per week, yet the White House Coronavirus Taskforce has only held one public briefing since July, that was on November 19.

As the national and local data shows, the spread of the virus is in primarily very White communities. But currently no one is calling on White people to get their act together and do what the public health professionals have told us all to do for months. Instead, they use very colorblind language saying that “all Americans” need to do better. The White community is not being chastised like the Black and Hispanic communities were back in the spring. No one was afraid to call out those communities back then, but they refuse to call out the White community now.

In Milwaukee, when the virus was devastating the Black community, we heard calls for Black people to “do better.” Nationally there were assumptions made that the virus would not impact White people because they were acting “responsibly.” As I said then, the virus does not discriminate based on race.

Now that we have clear evidence of the impact on the White community in metro Milwaukee we still see Whites refusing to wear masks and demanding that schools reopen in person with little to no regard for the adults in the schools.

Since the spring I have tried really hard to let people know that we need to let the local data tell the story instead of depending on national trends and data. As I have said numerous times during the pandemic, the black community in Milwaukee was hit very hard by deaths due to COVID-19 in the first two months of the pandemic but the trend shifted to the Hispanic and white communities beginning in May. Current data shows that most cases of the coronavirus now are in the suburban communities which are primarily populated by White people in Milwaukee County.

No one seems willing to say out loud what many of us see; White people are the primary spreaders of the disease in Milwaukee County. They have been the community hardest hit in deaths each month since May. Whites are 50.5% of the population in the county while Blacks are 26% and Hispanics are 5.6%. The month-to-month totals of White deaths as a percentage of the total in the county tell us a story: May (50.5%); July (51.5%); August (62.5%); October (70.4%); so far in November (68.4%) based on the Medical Examiner’s County Public Data database.

Whites have been over-represented in deaths and cases for three of the past four months. Despite this, the narrative has not kept up with the trends that data clearly articulate. I don’t know why elected leaders are so afraid to say to White people in Milwaukee County that they need to do better like they did with the black and Hispanic community when they were hardest hit.

When will we ask White people to take “personal responsibility” for slowing down the spread of the pandemic? As we approach the holiday season let’s turn the words of Dr. Woodson around for White people.

“If you make a community feel that it is immune to the pandemic, you do not have to compel them to accept that status, for they will act as if they are.”

© Photo

Tim Holte, Will Cioci, and Brad Horn

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a Consultant with Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.