My mom won’t admit it, but I think she’s pretty scared right now.
Back in 2013, my mom moved to South Carolina with her soon-to-be husband and my sister, partially to help care of my ailing grandfather, and partially because I think she was ready for a fresh change. We lived in our house for the better part of a decade, which is longer than we’d lived literally anywhere. Also, I think she wanted me to finally grow up and get out of the house. I didn’t have much in the way of plans or anything then. I think it was her way of pushing me out of the nest in a way that would hurt her heart as little as possible.
She doesn’t miss Maryland’s unpredictable ass weather (it felt like fall here a couple days ago; it’s nice today; next week it’ll probably be hotter and more humid than Florida). She sure as hell doesn’t miss Maryland traffic, as the last time she was up here it gave her a near panic attack driving on I-270 again. (“Who is the Elizabeth Warren of this car? YOU ARE!” my sister would say to encourage her, because my sister is rad). She doesn’t miss the snow, or are small yard.
But I do think she misses being in a blue state. Moreover, I think my mom is scared. She calls and talks to me in the way only a mother who is worried about something but doesn’t want to worry you with her worries does. And because we’re in day *checks notes* 3,568 of the COVID-19 pandemic, our convos inevitably turn towards the difference between Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan and South Carolina’s Republican Henry McMaster.
To hear my mom tell it, in the early days of the virus, McMaster started to make moves to protect the citizens of his state, albeit belatedly. But as Trump increasingly became apathetic and bored with the virus, McMaster stopped doing much of anything. McMaster enacted a stay-at-home order on April 6th; by May 1st, the order had been rescinded. My mother and sister are both immuno-compromised, and yet most people don’t wear masks, as they’re not required. Social distancing is technically a thing, but only technically. My mom hasn’t been leaving the house much; just to walk around the neighborhood and occasionally get groceries that she can’t find on SHIPT. My mom is basically a prisoner in her home, unable to move about in public because of the sheer amounts of “not giving a fuck” exhibited by those around her.
My mom is also convinced that South Carolina is obscuring the number of cases, and I don’t blame her for thinking so.
Contrast that with the approach of Karen Lee, an Arkansas resident who, along with a bunch of other people, crowded Lake Hamilton. Lee isn’t even a resident of Arkansas; she drove from Nashville to join with a bunch of people in flouting social distancing guidelines.
Here we stand in stark contrast; my mother not being able to move around in public safely because not only could she get sick, but she could get my sister, my stepfather, and all of her neighbors sick. And an actual, literal Karen being on some “carpe diem” bullshit.
“…you see no mask here, you see no fear,” Lee also said.
Yes Karen; you could die from COVID-19, or you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Those are both possibilities.
The thing is, and stick with me, Karen, is that you can help prevent COVID-19 and prevent other people from getting it as well.
Karen, this shit is bigger than you. It’s not about whether you could die, it’s about whether lots of people could die.
This dichotomy between “what effects me” and “what effects others” is pivotal in understanding how in the fuck America seemed to get to the point we’re at now, where we demand scientists and doctors get fired, assault essential workers for politely asking people to wear masks, and flippantly talk about whether the deaths of the old, or the black, or the poor really matter as much as the Dow Jones and whether or not you can sit in an Applebee’s.
America has a weird sort of collective individualism, the type of oxymoronic stance only a country like America could manage to have. This stringent sticking to of individualism has poisoned everything in this country, disguised as a need for Americans to have a “choice”.
We can’t have universal healthcare because Americans want the choice to stick with their (typically worse) employee-sponsored healthcare. We do this because (middle-class white) folks have been led to believe (by rich white folks) that asking the government for a “hand out” (in this case, the ability to be sick without also being buried in medical debt) is a personal failure of self. And all the other countries who have been able to enact universal health care that their citizens are happy with just aren’t as complex as the United States, which is simultaneously the greatest country in the world with the greatest (white) minds and also completely lost when it comes to designing a system that can sustain itself.
This doesn’t just infect conservatives; alleged liberals like Jenny McCarthy have been extolling the values of having the choice to have their children vaccinated for years. It is their choice to not get their children vaccinated, because some (long since and thoroughly debunked) study indicated that vaccinations can lead to autism in children. If your children get the measels, then it’s simply because you haven’t spent enough money to prevent them from getting the measels, and that can’t truly be their fault. Your kids don’t matter. Theirs do.
In other words, if your child dies because Karen decides she doesn’t want to vaccinate her children and they pass the disease onto your child, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault. And your child’s fault.
Because if they were strong enough, they would’ve lived.
There’s some shit you can’t beat on your own, no matter how often conservatives tell you that you can. And that’s supposed to be okay.
To admit a weakness at something isn’t to make a blanket statement you’re incapable of fixing a problem on your own. It’s admitting that you can fix it on your own, but that some help would be appreciated.
This runs counter to what the conservative (and white) viewpoint on what success should be. In America, admitting that you simply can not control something alone, or that you need help, is admitting some sort of cowardice.
“Karen made it on her own, so why can’t you?”
“Doug crawled out of his circumstances to make something of himself, what’s your deal?”
The truth is that Karen and Doug were born on first base just by virtue of being born white. Just by being white, they have an incalculable amount of privilege that no one else has, with built in opportunities no one else has. The truth is that they are not acting alone at all; there’s an entire system in place to ensure their success at the expense of all others.
Systemic racism is the hardest thing to explain to white people simply because there’s nothing like it that exists in their worldview. It’s why it becomes easy for deep red conservatives and big idea progressives like Bernie Sanders to converge on their views on the things holding other races back; it’s not the racism, it’s the economics. Economics are easier to understand. If you give people enough money, they can come out on top, right?
Except no. The wealthiest black people still make far less money than their white counterparts, and it takes more time, too. It took Jay-Z fifty years to make his first billion dollars; it took Kylie Jenner 21 years. (Hilariously, Kylie Jenner is considered “self-made” even when her mother is a famous Olympian and her three famous sisters have been on television for over a decade and she’s had access to vast sums of wealth literally since the moment she was conceived.)
Oprah was 49 when she became a billionaire. Bill Gates was 31. Michael Jordan was 51 when he officially joined the billionaires club. Mark Zuckerberg was 23.
Jay-Z, Oprah and Jordan had to be, arguably, the best in their fields in order to attain vast quantities of wealth. Gates borrowed a chunk of his ideas for Windows from Steve Jobs and Apple. Kylie Jenner is famous for *checks notes* being famous. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the best at anything, either.
Mediocrity among white folks is tolerated, even excused. Donald Trump’s numerous and staggeringly thorough business failures did not stop people from voting for him based on his business acumen, and as President.
And that is proof positive that white people don’t work as individuals. White people are complicit in the biggest collective effort to ensure their own safety in history.
It’s called white supremacy.
White people took collective action to dismantle the busing programs that integrated schools (hey there, Joe Biden, interesting to see you here); schools today are now more segregated than they were in the 1950s. When black families attained just enough wealth to start moving to their neighborhoods, white families collectively moved out, taking their tax dollars with them.
Wealthy corporations owned and operated by white people buy up cheap land in poor neighborhoods and build housing people of color can’t afford to force them out. White people move into that housing and collectively attempt to remove the very culture that made these places appealing and interesting in the first place.
There’s 607 billionaires in the United States, and only 5 of them are black. (I named 3.) The rest of the white billionaires spend more money than the entire readership of this site and every site on Kinja lobbying politicians on both sides of the aisle to make sure they don’t have to pay a penny more in taxes. (Have I mentioned the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden isn’t in favor of a wealth tax?) Those same white billionaires then use funds from their corporations to make sure their corporations don’t have to pay a penny more in taxes either.
It’s white people who have taken their collective rights to discriminate against people of color or LGBTQ people to the highest courts on the land, where the predominately white and conservative Supreme Court increasingly chooses to side with them. It’s white people who, by voting self-serving pricks like Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham into office, have brought democracy to a standstill in an effort to pack as many federal courts with white conservatives as possible.
It’s white people who collectively decided to get “tough on crime”, which spurred the for-profit prison industry which, spoiler warning, primarily preys on people of color. (Hey look, it’s Joe Biden again!). It’s white people who looked at the crack cocaine crisis and told black communities to “Just Say No”, who are now looking at the opioid crisis destroying white communities and treating drug addiction like a mental health problem. It’s white people who point to gun violence in Chicago while also advocating that as many (white) people have access to guns as possible. It’s white people who continue to call the cops on people of color just for existing in space that they feel belongs to them.
White people preach about individualism primarily because it’s a carefully constructed lie meant to obscure the actual, literal truth; there can be no individualism under white supremacy. White supremacy exists to guarantee that white individuals won’t get left behind.
To put it even more succinctly, white supremacy is the ultimate hand out.
More than anything, I think my mom is worried for me.
That’s what good moms do, right? I mean, naturally she’s scared for herself. But if we go for a couple of days without talking, I can feel the anxiety in her texts. I think she just wants to hear my voice, and know that I’m okay. Which I am.
I’m lucky enough to live in a state that identified the issues and start aggressively moving to limit the spread. Larry Hogan, to his credit, has been pretty dismissive of protests to re-open Maryland. He’s ceded authority to county execs to determine when things will re-open. People wear masks here; only a few people grumble about it, but at least they politely put up with it anyway. They socially distance. If it comes to having to do a lockdown again, I have little doubt Larry Hogan would be willing to do it. And, thanks to getting my medication, that roiling typhoon of anxiety that caused me to lash out at my wife on a near daily basis has quieted into a slightly turbulent squall. Basically, I’m okay.
I’m more worried for her, and the crazed loons who elected someone like McMaster.
I’m worried that there are a lot of Karen Lees. I worry that there are people who think like her; why is COVID-19 such a big deal? I could die tomorrow. If I die I die. They think showing up and crowding into places proves that the virus hasn’t won. They can overcome anything, and they can do it alone.
The Karens don’t feel part of a larger community of Americans. They instead are a part of a community that puts self-preservation above all else, at the expense of the rest of us. They admire people as crass and self-congratulatory as they are, even whilst their collective actions look to doom all of us. “Look at all these people out here, forgoing the collective need to be safe so they can congregate and show an unthinking, unintelligent, non-sentient virus that we’re not fucking scared of it! Pass me a grapefruit La Croix, Doug, I’m feeling saucy!”.
It’s easy to not be scared (or more likely, to pretend not to be scared) when you know the deck is stacked in your favor. It’s easy for the death count to not bother you when you’re able to treat life with disregard for others and you typically can’t die for simply existing in a place where someone else feels threatened.
Individualism is, like many things, something that’s only afforded to white people. And it, like most things, is going to get a lot of people killed for no reason before this is all said and done.
When I was struggling to keep up with rent once upon a time, my mother told me not to be afraid to take food stamps or get public housing assistance. “Those things are there for people who need them. You should never feel ashamed of using it until you get back on your feet.”
I don’t know about everyone else’s mom, but it’s comforting knowing my mom had that viewpoint. I wish more (white) people felt the same way.