Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

Given the extent to which the coronavirus has shaken up the world it’s hard to imagine a disease more virulent than Covid-19, but there is one. It has infected hundreds of millions of people, contaminated institutions around the world and disrupted countless lives in unimaginable ways. That disease is racism.

Just when you might have thought nothing would push the coronavirus off the front page or replace it as the lead story on the evening news, we’re confronted with another story about a white cop killing an unarmed (and defenceless) black man. You would think that with the introduction of body cameras by most big-city US police departments, the proliferation of Instagram (which ensures such incidents will go viral within minutes after they happen) and the huge protests after the last such incident, that police officers would finally get it. But that’s the epidemiology of a virus. It is errant. When and where it pops up defies logic. 

Millions around the world have taken to the streets to protest against the latest horrifying viral outbreak, in Minneapolis. If this sort of cheapening of black lives were limited to police departments, I don’t think it would have sparked such universal outrage. If a few bad cops were the extent of the problem, it would certainly be easier to quarantine and contain. But, it’s deeper than that, which is why millions are defying curfews and the possibility of further Covid-19 contagion because they understand that racism is the real doomsday virus the world should dread.

If George Floyd’s murder were one isolated incident of one white cop kneeling on the neck of one black man for nine minutes, we could deal with that and be done with it. But, as a Washington Post writer recently suggested, the reason there was a Michael Brown incident, an Eric Garner incident, and now a George Floyd incident, is that even Hollywood is complicit in helping to fashion a cultural narrative that gives the police licence to commit these sorts of monstrous acts.

The writer hit the nail on the head: movies and television shows portray “crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified ... [given] what policing in [urban centres] has too often become, Hollywood’s version of it looks less like fantasy and more like complicity”. Her solution: we should “shut down all police movies and TV shows, now!” She’s right that these age-old plots contribute to the problem, and rewriting the script to make police misconduct a no-no, or something punishable with the full weight of the law, is something we should do. If only it were that easy. But it isn’t, of course, because the problem doesn’t end there.

The news media are culpable as well. Former US president George W Bush coined a phrase describing the racism many whites harbour towards blacks: “The bigotry of low expectations.” Nowhere is that bias more prevalent than in the media. On a good day, when there is a black or brown face in the news we’re a source of entertainment. On a bad day, we’re either a global or local problem of one sort or another. To add insult to injury, more often than not the subliminal (if not, overt) message is that we suffer because we can’t get out of our own way. In those occasional stories where papers feign an interest in the humanity of black and brown people we are treated as props in a morality play, where only the views of whites matter in terms of how the world should be ordered or understood.

Even the data related to the coronavirus reveals more about the divide of race than it does about the toxicity of the virus. The connection between higher incomes and better health outcomes has been well documented for years. Black and brown people are more susceptible to infection by the coronavirus not because there is genetic predisposition, but because we are poorer. Instead of worrying about wearing masks we need to unmask those who continue to implement policies that preclude black and brown people from having the means to make healthier life choices and having access to better health care.

Unlike the coronavirus there will not be a vaccination available over the next 12 to 18 months to end the scourge of racism. Having said that, there is a protocol for treatment that will work. We know this because we’ve seen it. During the modern era it started with the civil rights movement and it continues with movements such as Black Lives Matter and the spontaneous demonstrations taking place around the world. All have resulted in a change of laws and, to a lesser extent, a change of hearts. This is why despite the reality of racism the US could elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president. It’s why opinion polls show that a majority of Americans now believe police misconduct in communities of colour is a problem.

There is no pill we can pop in the morning and be done with this virus by the end of the day. This will require multiple “therapies” over a sustained period. Hollywood must do its part. The news media must do their part. The people must continue to hold politicians accountable for delivery on the promise of equal opportunity and equitable treatment in every aspect of life, from law enforcement to health care to education.

Unlike novel coronaviruses, racism is an old malady. In light of the progress we’ve seen, it’s reasonable to conclude that further progress can be made. If there’s the will there’s a way to go about inoculating the world and being done with this dreaded disease once and for all. Obviously, it’s easier said than done, but at the end of the day defeating racism is within our capacity.

• Stith served as the US envoy to Tanzania during the Clinton administration. He is currently nonexecutive chair of the Johannesburg-based African Presidential Leadership Centre.

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