COVID-19 Protests: Striking Evidence of White Privilege

 

COVID-19 has infected 1.64 million people and has prematurely taken the lives of almost 100,000. Although the government has taken action to flatten the curve, actions differ from state to state. Such measures taken by different states include the following: issuing lockdowns by closing non-essential businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, mandating social distancing, and requiring masks when in public. However, people have grown restless and have begun to defy these orders by going out and protesting. Large groups have gathered in Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, and 15 other states, ignoring social distancing orders to protest the restrictions that the government has placed. Evident from the protests in Orange County, California, these protests are not isolated to a certain socioeconomic status, so the upper class has had their hand as well.

These protestors claim that the government is violating their constitutional rights, and have begun to call governors dictators or cite the government’s actions as tyranny. Furthermore, many protestors fight these restrictions because they want to get back to work to receive a paycheck. Unemployment has been another massive problem due to COVID-19 with over 30 million Americans filing for unemployment since mid-March. Protestors fear that the economy will suffer with businesses closed if these restrictions continue.

Dozens of people show up at Newport Beach City Hall on Monday, April 20, 2020 to protest the government shutdown because of the coronavirus. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

These protestors have mostly been comprised of white, conservative, Trump supporters. Protestors proudly show their support for the president by waving “Trump 2020” flags, sporting “Trump 2020” signs and t-shirts. This immense support for President Trump makes these protests reminiscent of a Trump rally. At some protests, guns are slung across protestors’ chests as a symbol of their constitutional rights. Far right groups, militias, and believers of conspiracy theories have also been sighted at some of these protests. However, people that are not associated with any of these groups have also come out to protest, expressing their frustration of not being able to work.

What exactly are these protestors saying?

“My constitutional rights are essential.”

“Stop the tyranny.”

“Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.”

“Set us free.”

“End the oppression.”

End the oppression. What is oppression? Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, oppression is the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power. Are these government restrictions an unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power? Is the inability to get a haircut, what has become a strong symbol for these protestors, oppression? Is it oppression they feel, or is it merely an inconvenience that is being mistaken for oppression? Oppression is a concept that white people may not truly understand or be familiar with, and something that African Americans unfortunately know all too well. I concede that not being able to work to earn a paycheck and provide for yourself or your family is extremely difficult, and this difficulty is not being downplayed. However, the idea of oppression is drastically different for white people living in America in comparison to African Americans.

White people have always been the majority in the United States. From the very beginning, the white man held all the power and arguably, still holds much of the power today. In the present and throughout history, white people have gone unchecked and largely unrestrained because of the power they held due to being the majority. Now, in the light of COVID-19, the government has started to place restrictions on what people can or cannot do, striking fear into the hearts of these white protestors and causing them to go out and fight them. Why? Because they have never experienced being restricted or being told what to do, and in turn, they call this loss of power oppression.

The oppression that African Americans have felt since the birth of this nation is absolutely nothing like the oppression that these protestors are claiming to feel under the COVID-19 restrictions. These regulations were put into place for the general welfare of the country, and in no way were they meant to, or did, target white people. Not only are African Americans facing the same exact restrictions that these protestors are calling oppression, but they have been fighting against slavery, racism, discrimination, and for the most basic of human rights for hundreds of years. Even today, they fight just to live, to not be shot and blatantly murdered for jogging in a neighborhood, such as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. African Americans face oppression in employment, education, the criminal justice system, living standards, and even health care. They have been protesting for these important issues for hundreds of years, but these white protestors are protesting for their right to not wear a mask, to not socially distance. Do you see the disparity? Not only are the issues themselves drastically different, but the consequences of not wearing a mask and not socially distancing directly put other people in harm’s way.

White privilege is defined as the inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice. Under the same circumstances as an African American, a white person can go for a jog in their neighborhood and not fear for their life. A white person can get pulled over and expect not to get shot. White privilege is the expectation that nothing is going to happen to you because you are white, even when you resist arrest, insult police officers, and illegally open carry.

These protests are glaring pieces of evidence of the extent that white privilege exists in the United States today. The white protesters’ absolute disregard for the consequences of their actions, ignoring social distancing and refusing to listen to stay-at-home orders, stems from white privilege. They are so consumed with fighting the inconvenience that the government has created in order to protect the health of the country that they have conveniently ignored the consequences of reopening the nation on other people. They go out and protest at the expense of the lives of African Americans who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. For example, in Michigan, African Americans make up only 14% of the state’s population, but make up 33% of cases and 40% of deaths related to COVID-19. Similarly, in Illinois, African Americans make up 14.6% of the state’s population and 42% of COVID-19 deaths. This narrative is seen in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and New York, along with other states. However, the federal government has not reported on COVID-19 cases and deaths on the basis of race.

These COVID-19 protests are a symbol of the white privilege that exists today. The oppression these protestors claim to feel is nothing but a mere inconvenience in comparison to the oppression that African Americans have dealt with for hundreds of years. Their ignorance shines as they fight to reopen the country, ignoring the damaging effects it could have on other people’s lives.

 

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Katie Chung is in her third year at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Economics and Business. She plans to graduate a year early in hopes of going to law school after graduation and has automatic acceptance into the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Katie is currently working with a nonprofit organization that aims to register young voters for the 2020 election and will be working for a Congressman this fall.

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