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Reggie Jackson: When white privilege comes up against a pandemic

“The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. This intrusion results solely from force, or threat of force, undignified by any reasonable application of the principle of law, reason and justice.” – Alabama Governor George Wallace Speech, while refusing admittance of black students at the University of Alabama June 11, 1963

“It was with a heavy heart that I found it necessary to sign the bills of the Extraordinary Session of the General Assembly and to close the High Schools in the City of Little Rock. I took this action only after the last hope of relief from an intolerable situation had been exhausted.” – Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus Speech, justifying closing public schools to protest supreme court ruling to integrate schools, September 1958

When I saw the videos on the news from Brookfield, Wisconsin, and the images from places like Austin, Texas, Lansing, Michigan, Carson City, Nevada, Indianapolis, Indiana, Annapolis, Maryland and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania of throngs of white people, most without masks, none socially distancing, demanding that their governors “liberate” their states from lockdown orders I was reminded of images of events in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi years ago. Back then the governors of many Southern states and white citizens defied the federal government orders to desegregate schools because they believed they had the “right” to discriminate and not follow orders by the federal government or courts.

As I watched the images on my computer from around the country these past several days, I saw angry white people demanding that they had “rights.” What about the rights of the rest of us to be safe from those violating the stay-at-home orders? Our rights are not important? Those of us who’ve chosen to follow the orders of our governor to stay-at-home are in the majority. We are all inconvenienced. Many of us are not able to work and earn a living, but we follow what the health experts say is the right thing to do.

The images I saw were eerily similar to the days of the battle against Jim Crow. I saw American flags as well as Confederate flags in Alabama and Arkansas back then. I saw both of them in these current protests also. I looked for the faces of none-white people. I only saw one black person in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What I did see was signs, lots of signs. These are what the signs said.

“Open Wisconsin Now” “The Free Market Decides What’s Essential” “No Tyrants, Recall Evers” “We The People” “Backoff Emperor Evers” “Liberate Wisconsin” “You Can’t Close America” “Texas Will Not Take the Mark of the Beast” “Flatten the Fear” “Shutdown the Shutdown” “Facts Not Fear” “Feel Safer Now?” “Even Pharoah Freed Slaves During a Plague” “Trump Lock Up the Nazi Woman From Michigan” “Freedom Trumps Safety and Communism” “Heil Whitmer” “Live Free or Die” “Stop the Fear, End the Lockdown” “Recall Whitmer” “Flatten the Curve, Not Michigan’s Economy” “If Fast Food Is Essential, Why Not Church??” “Tyranny Becomes Law, Rebellion Becomes Duty” “Fauci was Wrong” “This Dem Says Reopen Maryland” “Govt Tryranny Socialism/Communism Are More Deadly Than the Wuhan Flu” “You Are Destroying Lives!” “Back To Work Now” “Jesus is My Vaccine”

Many of the people in these crowds were adorned with American flag scarves around their faces, American flag shirts and pants, MAGA Hats, Trump/Pence 2020 shirts and hats, and dozens had rifles strapped over their shoulders while wearing bulletproof vests outside the state capital buildings in Lansing, Michigan and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Large crowds of supporters drove past honking their horns in support out in Brookfield. I saw a lot of people walking around carrying large American flags. American flags were draped over people’s cars. One of the things that stood out to me was that on a day where the coronavirus has killed over 160,000 people worldwide with one fourth of them in America, few had on face coverings and none were practicing social distancing.

There were more than a thousand lining Bluemound Road in Brookfield. I saw people with American flags and I saw people that had Confederate flags. This was not in Mississippi or Alabama or Arkansas but right here in good-ole “Midwest Nice” Wisconsin.

There were hundreds marching in front of the Capitol in Michigan chanting that the governor should be removed from office due to her stay-at-home order. This while nearly 14,000 are confirmed to have the virus in Wayne County where Detroit is located and over 1,100 — most of them black — have been killed by the virus. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said the stay-at-home orders might need to be extended because of the protestors not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

“When you see a political rally, that’s what it was yesterday, a political rally like that where people aren’t wearing masks and they’re in close quarters and they’re touching one another … the odds are very high that they’re spreading COVID-19 along with it. So it’s that kind of irresponsible action that puts us in this situation where we might have to actually think about extending stay-at-home orders, which is supposedly what they’re protesting.”

The “You Can’t Close America” protest in Austin was one of the largest protests. Austin is in Travis County Texas. Travis County has the fourth highest number of cases and the sixth highest number of deaths due to the virus in the state.

The most amazing thing to me was that there were no police officers in any of the images of protestors I saw across the country. I did not see armored personnel carriers like I saw in Baltimore and Ferguson during peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. They may have been there but they were not in plain sight.

The Dodge County Sheriff openly questioned the Governor’s order. The Racine County Sheriff claimed the order would have “dire lifetime consequences.” Germantown Police Chief Mike Snow speaking about people not social distancing and staying home admitted to the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, “People are still routinely violating this. We anticipated this would happen.” He went even further by saying he expects it to get worse when the weather warms up. “We are still just warning people. We are going to get that day when it is really warm. I get it, and I understand that people may want to play sports. What people need to understand is that it is not allowed.” Hales Corners Police Lt. Brent Kroll said, “Our intent is to not take any law enforcement action, like make an arrest, or anything like that. That’s a last resort. In fact, officers need to seek approval from a supervisor before they can do that.” “Anytime a new law’s enacted, it’s so hard to say that there’s a black and white area, and that we’re going to start off with just hard enforcement and start citations,” Greenfield Police Capt. Scott Zienkiewicz told the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel.

As we look at the devastation the pandemic has done to black communities around the country, with massive loss of lives, it was apparent to me that these protesters did not care about that. They are not concerned because they see this as a “Chinese flu” as the President called it. Let’s not believe these were spontaneous protests of the “stay-at-home orders” in place around the country. They were pre-planned, organized and promoted on conservative talk radio, and social media. The President himself planted the seeds of continuing protests. The day after the protest in Michigan the President tweeted in all caps, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”

As we look at these protests in historical context it is clear to see the connections to the past. We as Americans are accustomed to white people flaunting their privileges. When President Truman de-segregated the military in 1948 it took years for the armed services to put this into effect. It did not happen because the President signed an executive order. It took years for whites to accept this order. They openly flaunted their ability to defy the order

When the owners of major league baseball decided to ban black ball players on July 14, 1887 it created what many called the “color line.” It was not a color line. It was racism, plain and simple. White people used their privilege to flaunt their power over black people. Contrary to how history has been written, Jackie Robinson did not integrate baseball on April 15, 1947; he integrated one baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Twelve years later on July 21, 1959 the Boston Red Sox were the last team to sign a black player. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s before every team had at least one black player all at the same time.

The following season, 1960, the Kаnsаs City Athletics were the last team to have an entirely white roster for a full season. Two years later the Baltimore Orioles became the last team to have an all-white roster for an extended period of time. There were no black umpires in the league until 1966. Frank Robinson became the first black manager in baseball in 1974. And the Houston Astros in 1993 were the first team to have a black general manager. So the myth of integrated baseball is truly another classic example of white people flaunting their privilege.

When we see governors around the country having to push back against the President and protestors to protect us from this pandemic I am shocked but not surprised. As a general rule in America white people have taken it upon themselves to express their displeasure with legal mandates. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board case in 1954 whites around the country were in the streets protesting the “race-mixing” that they said would come with integrated schools. When federal courts ruled that busing would be used as a tool to enforce integration, whites once again were out in the streets protesting. Southern leaders in Congress drafted what they called The Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 U.S. Senators and 82 members of the House of Representatives, including the entire Congressional delegations of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, to expressly repudiate the Supreme Court decision.

“We regard the decisions of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people… This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding. Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside mediators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public schools systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the States… We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”

In Boston on April 5, 1976 a black man named Ted Landsmark, a 29-year-old Yale-educated lawyer, was attacked with an American flag. A group of young white people protesting busing pounced on him as he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The iconic photo of the attack titled “The Soiling of Old Glory” won a Pulitzer Prize.

Landsmark described the incident to reporters. “I had difficulty finding a parking space in downtown Boston, and I was running a few minutes late for the meeting in city hall. So I was in a hurry and perhaps not paying as much attention as I might have as I approached a corner, where the young demonstrators were coming in the other direction. I did not see them until both they and I were at that corner. The first person to attack me hit me from behind, which knocked off my glasses and ended up breaking my nose. The flag being swung at me came at me just moments after that and missed my face by inches. The entire incident took about seven seconds.”

These current protests remind me of those in many ways. Just as with the Jim Crow laws, the people who are most negatively impacted by the virus across the country have disproportionately been black people. So in some ways the stay-at-home orders have been a measure of protection for all of us but in places like Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City and Newark they’ve protected our community.

Some of the people I saw in Brookfield, where there have been very few cases up to now, expressed their view that this virus is a Milwaukee issue and not their concern. It appears to me by some of the comments I saw on social media that they were not concerned about the large numbers of black people dying in Milwaukee.

People in Brookfield, as a result of decades of policies and practices by the federal, state and local government have kept black people away from their neighborhoods. The city’s population is 86.4 percent white blacks accounting for just 1.2 percent of city’s residents. The longtime residents of Brookfield have been the beneficiaries of government largesse in the form of Federal Housing Authority loans to purchase homes and businesses that black people could not get. They benefitted by having access to the GI Bill benefits of free education that most black GIs could not utilize to gain an advantage educationally. They benefitted by the government building a massive highway system to allow them to drive into the city of Milwaukee to work and then take comfort in their drive back to suburbia with their money. They don’t like to admit to these privileges because the story is told differently around their dinner tables. They have convinced themselves that they have what they have because they “did” all the “right” things. The reality is that they “had” all the “right” things. Most importantly, white skin.

Just as George Wallace and Orval Faubus used their positions of privilege to tell the federal government they did not have to abide by their rules, these white protestors are doing the same. When a bar owner in Wauwatosa brazenly says he’s going to reopen on May 1st and no one can stop him, he makes it very clear that he is flaunting his power to violate a state ordered mandate to not do so. White people have felt free to do these things for most of American history. Some are calling it civil disobedience, but they don’t have to fear the police in armored vehicles with assault rifles or National Guard troops in tanks coming into their communities to stop them.

Only time will tell how long the stay-at-home orders will stand under the immense pressure being brought to bear around the nation including a threatened lawsuit by Republican lawmakers to force the governor to end what is clearly in the best interest of public health in Wisconsin. Because of social distancing, we’ve been able to slow the spread of the virus. Any attempts to open the economy up too soon will have terrible consequences, according to the experts.

I am at a place where I honestly fear the hordes of protestors demanding we open the economy back up more than I do the virus. If they win their way, the virus will begin to spread more widely and our already overburdened hospitals will not be able to handle it. All evidence from other countries has shown that these measures work. Those states that did social distancing during the 1918 pandemic saw how well it worked. Those that ignored that advice saw huge casualties.

What these protestors clearly don’t see is that their desire and privileges they feel they have are not more important than public health. They may be willing to risk their lives, but they are risking mine as well. I’m not giving them permission to risk mine.

“I don’t know any other way to characterize it, when we have an order from governors, both Republicans and Democrats, that basically are designed to protect people’s health, literally their lives, to have a president of the United States basically encourage insubordination, to encourage illegal activity. These orders actually are the law of these states.” – Washington State Governor Jay Inslee

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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.