Race and Class Privilege in the Age of COVID-19

Madonna recently referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the great equalizer”. In the sense that any infection itself doesn’t care about wealth, ethnicity, or background, she’s right. But the harsh reality is that our US culture is deeply steeped in inequities that impact our experiences, including during times of crisis like this.

Both the mainstream news and social media are filled with suggestions that unintentionally reflect these inequities. Here are some ways in which the privilege behind these suggestions shows.

Note that while I list some things as “class privilege” and others as “race privilege”, class and race privilege in the United States are entangled. For instance, because affluent neighborhoods are disproportionately White, class privileges like access to hospitals and grocery stores are de facto race privilege as well:

“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation. This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.” — Dr. Camara Jones

Shopping

  1. It is class privilege to be able to purchase more than your usual amount of food and other supplies. A significant percentage of the country lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Overbuying, in particular, is a use of that privilege to hurt others (hopefully inadvertently): Those who could not stockpile toilet paper are now in a position of having to travel between multiple stores, putting themselves at greater risk, to fulfill a basic need.
  2. It is class privilege to be able to purchase unusual supplies, like masks and atypical cleaning supplies.
  3. It is class privilege to be able to transport those products easily. Many people use public transportation, which has become even more difficult to use with curtailed service.
  4. It is class privilege to be able to purchase things online, which requires a computer with internet service or a cell phone, as well as a credit or debit card with available funds. In a recent Facebook discussion, someone asked, “How do you get home deliveries without a computer?” and was told, “Use your cell phone.” This reflects the privilege that comes with the technological divide.
  5. It is class privilege to be able to take home deliveries without fearing they’ll get stolen. I have a garage and a covered porch, and trustworthy neighbors. I have friends who live in apartments, where packages are not as secure. Front stoops are not consistently safe, either.

Healthcare

  1. It is race privilege to be able to wear a mask in public. Many areas have laws against them, and those laws are disproportionately enforced against people of color, especially Black people… even though many of the laws were originally created to combat the KKK. That reality means that Black folks nearly everywhere in this country have reason to be more anxious about being harassed by police and security guards. It has already happened at least once.
  2. It is race and class privilege to expect to be treated properly at the local emergency room. It is class privilege because people with excellent insurance get treated better than people without. It is race privilege because the medical profession has a long history in this country of treating Black people more poorly than White people. It is still believed by some medical professionals, for instance, that Black people are less vulnerable to pain. ER wait times for Black people are longer.
  3. It is class privilege to be able to leave things out of the home for some period of time to help any surface COVID-19 to die, or to wipe down the shipping boxes and unpack them outside.

Employment and Quarantine

  1. It is race and class privilege to expect some degree of job security. I have no real doubt that I will still have my job (teacher) after this is over. The more “white collar” the job, the more stable it will be. Going with that, in this country, is health insurance stability. And job security is both objectively and perceptually higher for White people than for Black people.
  2. It is class privilege to be able to take a voluntary hiatus from your job, or to telecommute from home, in order to protect yourself or others or in order to take care of school age children who are now out of school unexpectedly. (This does not as clearly apply to medical professionals during this specific crisis.)
  3. It is class privilege to be able to homeshool your child through online tools. It is also class privilege for your child to have teachers who are well-versed enough in those tools to be able to use them effectively.
  4. It is race and class privilege to have ready access to entertainment in the home. It is class privilege because it requires either internet or cable service or other technology, or an investment in books, board games, and so on. It is race privilege because entertainment in general in the US is most broadly geared towards White audiences.

(My spouse suggested some of the items on this list. For the original concept of White Privilege, with a long list of examples, see Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.)

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