I was walking home late one night recently when I ran into them. I froze, swore out loud and backpedaled.
A group of my neighbors had taken their house party to the street. Streams of smiling people without face masks spilled into the cul-de-sac ahead of me, blocking my only route home. Never mind that we live in a viral hotspot – predominately black DeKalb County, which has the second-highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Georgia. They partied on as I waited for a path to clear.
I’ve been thinking about those neighbors as I read stories with civil rights advocates saying black people and brown people are facing harsher treatment by law enforcement officers for violating coronavirus safety orders.
But there’s a question I never see addressed in any of those stories:
Why isn’t there any moral outrage directed at those same black or brown people who refuse to take precautions that would protect their community?
There are legitimate concerns about how law enforcement has treated people of color during this pandemic. I’ve seen troubling stories from black men saying they were forced to leave a store in Illinois because they wore surgical masks, and accusations that New York Police were targeting people of color while enforcing social distancing rules and used excessive force after the incidents escalated.
But I’m not talking about those incidents. I’m talking about videos showing groups of black people holding raucous birthday parties or house parties. Or the black man who filmed a crowd standing on cars and dancing to music in Cincinnati while declaring, “We don’t give a f*** about this coronavirus.”
Do they really deserve the same amount of sympathy as men of color who fear wearing masks in public?
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We defend black people who are harassed by police for everything from #SittingInStarbucksWhileBlack to #BarbecuingWhileBlack. Now it seems like we’re on the verge of inadvertently adding a new category for racial profiling: “Spreading Covid-19 while black.”
I say this not because I want to lecture about “respectability politics” – how black people should just act right and white folks will leave them alone.
I say this because I’m a black man who lives in a black community and black Americans have been disproportionately hammered by the virus. I wonder if I will make it through the next two years. I wonder if I’ll lose any family or friends. And I wonder if I’ll ever again hug my mother, who lives in an assisted living facility in a black neighborhood.
We should be careful about blaming the victim
This is a tricky issue. When I ran these concerns by some civil rights leaders, many hesitated to talk. Some even refused.
Some say criticizing the behavior of black people targeted by police for breaking social distancing rules is blaming the victim.
“I’m not willing to make a moral judgment about people’s behavior,” said Shiriki Kumanyika, founder of the Council on Black Health, which promotes health solutions for black communities.
“I don’t like the idea of singling out black people because it creates the perception that you can blame it on black people,” she told me. “There could be lack of information in their community about how to follow the rules.”
But others say we should call out black people who put themselves and others at risk by breaking social distancing rules.
“I think it’s easy to play victim, but we do have to be accountable,” said Doni Glover, a talk-show host and political analyst in Baltimore. “We can’t blame everything on race. Some things are common sense.”
Glover believes it’s mostly young people in the black community who are being reckless. Older people with children, or with parents living with them, are more responsible, he said.
“They quarantine for real. We haven’t seen them in six weeks.”
It may be time to waive a black tradition
There is another reason why it’s hard for black leaders to call out this behavior. It would violate one of the Ten Commandments of Blackness: Thou shalt not criticize your own people in the presence of white folks.
We traditionally save those self-critiques for all-black venues like the black church or barbershop – sacred communal spaces beyond the “white gaze.”
But many of those places of community are shut down by the coronavirus.
So I propose that we waive this rule during the pandemic for one simple reason: survival.
The virus is decimating people of color. We are actually being hit by a double epidemic: HIV/AIDS and now Covid-19. Any person of color who risks the lives of their community through reckless behavior doesn’t deserve to be treated as a modern-day Rosa Parks.
We can’t have it both ways
Maybe it’s time for a little self-reflection. We lament how the coronavirus is devastating our communities, and then we protest when police break up large social gatherings or crack down on other reckless behavior.
We can’t have it both ways. We lack the moral high ground on this – and we have much bigger issues to fight.
Such as the fight for survival.
I feel it almost every day. I have never been so afraid just to step out of my house. I drove around my neighborhood this past week and saw people crammed in restaurants and barbecuing in the park, not practicing social distancing. I saw employees handing fast food to drive-thru customers while wearing no gloves and with masks dangling off their necks.
And I was jogging around an otherwise empty track recently when a runner suddenly drew up next to me, coughed up phlegm and then spit – just as he passed me.
I have a confession: I would have had no problem with police coming out to my neighbor’s house that night and issuing citations to everyone who violated social distancing orders at that party. You can confiscate my Black Card for saying so.
But the people who endanger my family and their own community are no victims of racial persecution to me.
And they shouldn’t be to you, either.