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The Twin Pandemics of Racism and COVID-19

Being Black in America can be deadly on many levels.

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

We are experiencing the twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19 in the United States. Together, these two events, borne of structural and institutional inequities throughout our society, have an extraordinary impact on Black bodies and minds.

In today’s America, everyday experiences are suffused with fear, anxiety, and dread of encounters with armed authorities that provide an excessive amount of violence and surveillance over our movements throughout the world. Everyday interactions during this global pandemic are also leading to Blacks dying from COVID-19 at an extraordinary rate.

This is not just a healthcare issue, but a racism issue. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) may not have the luxury of quarantining at home. They need to keep working, putting their bodies at risk to deliver packages, clean buildings, and keep buses running. Also, decades of living with chronic stress and discrimination mean they are more likely to have pre-existing health problems.

My eyes fill with tears whenever I think about witnessing one particular encounter which brought all this home to me very powerfully. I am haunted by what I saw, heard, and experienced as I watched three burly plainclothes officers jump out of a low-riding Dodge Charger to rush an African American adolescent boy passing behind me on the street corner.

Immobilized by fear, guilt, and shame, I observed civil servants accost this boy. Their attack had strong sexualized implications, given the extraordinary imbalance of power and utter physicality of three grown men pouncing on their lone target’s thin body, pulling and shoving, touching and fingering his belongings and his person. They made jokes among themselves when they finally released him, flaunting their use of authority.

The history of this country, and the way whiteness and its agents have historically used the black male body, left me thankful I managed to escape their attention, even as I stood there frozen.

I am trying to come to terms with my failure to respond and protest in the moment. This particular encounter somehow more intimate than others I have experienced, contained a paradox: as physically close to me as these police officers were, I was nevertheless negated, and not just by them: I had negated myself as well.

I knew my body was black. I knew there was no escape from either the truth of who I was or the truth of what was unfolding under my horrified and paralyzed gaze. Neither could I be present for this awful moment nor could I get away. I could neither intervene nor look away. My authority as a psychoanalyst was stripped from me twice — once when I saw how these three government employees ignored my presence and once when I acted as though I was not there.

For one brief moment though, that negation lifted and something opened. While standing there, watching them do what they were doing to that boy, I realized I was naming these three civil servants as perpetrators, who were manhandling him as though playing with themselves.

And just as I became aware of my thoughts, I suddenly saw one of them see me looking at them. I saw him see me seeing him in all his humanity, and I saw him see how deeply his behavior had affected us, me and the boy, whom they soon released and sent on his way.

And then after this crack in time, he looked away, he broke our gaze as though our eyes had not touched. Whatever had opened shut down as my fear once again closed in.

Being black in America is deadly on a multiplicity of intersecting levels. Only an anti-racist approach to all aspects of our society — healthcare, housing, employment, policing — will start us down the path of supporting and safeguarding Black lives — lives that matter, no matter what.

About the Author: Annie Lee Jones, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in private practice in Queens, New York, and a co-chair of the Committee on Ethnicity, Race, Culture, Class and Language (CERCCL) at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

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