The urgency of the crisis has shown how petty our previous obsessions were. Identity politics, intersectionality, and critical theory all suddenly seem very trivial. To protest, at a time like this, that too many epidemiologists are white men seems not so much irrelevant as self-absorbed. What kind of person, faced with economic and societal meltdown on this scale, is primarily worried about people referring to the illness as a “Chinese virus”? Let’s just say, in the current climate, an increasingly rare person.
This is the “cheerful news” that Dan Hannan of the Washington Examiner assures us we can all expect in a post-Covid-19 world: the abandonment of identity politics. Hannan is not alone in his hopefulness (Bari Weiss has a similar take in the New York Times) and, to many people, his prediction must seem accurate. Times of crisis have a way of sobering people up, forcing them to take stock of what truly matters. Cast in a new light, old squabbles seem petty and, as Hannan says, self-absorbed.
But the identitarians are that “rare person” Hannan describes, and their views are being increasingly popularized. The better take is probably more akin to Michel Houellebecq’s recent prediction: “We will not wake up after the lockdown in a new world. It will be the same, just a bit worse.”
While the rest of the country may be economically smarting under the weight of the pestilence, the profession of the social justice warrior is impervious to market forces. This only makes sense if one understands the identity politics movement not as a phenomenon existing in a vacuum, but in terms of its coherent underlying ideology.
The proponents of what James Lindsay calls Critical Social Justice—an umbrella term for the mobilized form of Contemporary Critical Theory—cannot detect an ounce of triviality in their current concerns. To them, their cause has only become more urgent. For the disciples of the Social Justice faith and practitioners of Critical Theory—Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, Critical Pedagogy, Intersectional Studies, Queer Theory, etc.—a public health crisis demands a reorientation of priorities: just not in the way we might presume.
Covid-19 is an opportune moment for contemporary Critical Theorists, whose modus operandi is to problematize existing norms, narratives and institutions that have been formulated by dominant culture—that is, the culture of the white, heteronormative, cis-gendered patriarchy—and question their hegemony. A disruption of the status quo presents a chance to critique these institutions, to reveal their inadequacies by highlighting the resultant disparities. It is the firm belief of the Theorists that the inequalities evinced by said disparities now surfacing because of the pandemic were there all along and demonstrate the fundamentally oppressive character of western society—and that this revelation will awaken the utopian imaginations, the critical consciousness, of the oppressed and lead to their liberation. Since the outbreak became widespread in western countries in early March, the warriors of Critical Social Justice have been following this strategy in three areas: gender, race, and family.
On 4 March, the Independent ran an op-ed by Ian Hamilton, lecturer in mental health at the University of York. The headline lamented: “A vaccine will offer protection from coronavirus—but we can’t inoculate against sexism.”
Hamilton’s argument is simple: because women ostensibly react differently to vaccines than men, two coronavirus vaccines must be developed, lest women receive suboptimal treatment. In the best case scenario, we are still some 14–18 months away from a viable vaccine of any kind, but Hamilton demands two, sex-specific treatments be developed simultaneously, lest our Covid-19 response be influenced by a “male lens.”
Because of the male bias in medical research, Hamilton argues—“Science, it seems, is institutionally sexist”—we know more about male health and therefore treatment is geared towards male bodies, to the detriment of women. Second, and more importantly, the integrity of the western strategy against this plague is dependent on whether it perpetuates sexism (i.e. “the gender imbalance”) in the sciences. The solution? Trustbusting the male monopoly on research and academia to crush the patriarchy and systemic sexism—the real “social virus.”
You might assume that scientific disciplines are impervious to gendered perspectivism. You would be wrong. The Critical Social Justice affinity for standpoint epistemology informed by “lived experience” means that “It doesn’t matter how intelligent or aware a senior man in such a position is, they can never fully understand a woman’s health or experience of a health intervention.” Hamilton and others of his persuasion genuinely believe that sexism has stifled science. They would willingly delay vaccine development for the sake of combating systemic sexism and gendered norms.
Hamilton’s article shows that, for Critical Social Justice ideologues, to whom the world is a zero sum struggle between oppressors and oppressed, Covid-19 is nothing more than an opportunity to talk about the real work: deconstructing white, male hegemony.
Janet Paskin has similarly argued (as has the medical journal the Lancet) that because of inegalitarian western childcare norms, Covid-19 will put more stress on women. Her article reassures us that advocates are hopeful that this global health crisis will more evenly distribute domestic burdens and fracture existing systemic inequalities: “The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to challenge entrenched social dynamics.”
At the Huffington Post, Emily Cousens has bemoaned the patriotic overtones of the wartime language characterizing the UK’s pandemic response—which is, apparently, antithetical to global cooperation and fosters a spirit of exceptionalism that Cousens finds detestable. She worries aloud that:
If my university is the first to develop the vaccine, I’m worried that it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfill its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence. The story will be clear: China, once again, has unleashed a threat to civilization. But the best brains of the UK have saved the world.
She would rather her own countrymen suffer if it means that typical, colonial disease narratives are challenged. That’s the real work. To people who have bought into the Critical Theory worldview, the white supremacist, genocidal, ideological hegemony that they see everywhere is far more violent and deadly than Covid-19.
Identity politicians are not only concerned with gender inequality. For those who have adopted the intersectional sensibility, oppressions—racism, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir, homophobia, ableism, etc.—are interlocking and mutually reinforcing, as a result of one’s social location in the context of connected systems of power. (Indeed, government administrations have been regularly criticized for single-axis approaches to the pandemic, which treat race and gender as single-issue vectors—a heresy of the first order in the Critical Social Justice faith).
Accordingly, we are told that America’s chief, collective sin (racism) is simultaneously exposed and perpetuated by the pestilence. From the get go, xenophobia and anti-Asian racism have been running amok. Doubtless evils have occurred. But columnists across the country have painted anti-Asian harassment as a pandemic in its own right—one that has been there all along. The gist is that the coronavirus is forcing America to show its true colors.
Such reports are unsurprising, since a central belief of Critical Race Theorists is that racism is both ubiquitous and ordinary. In the new prejudice plus power definition of racism, it is only whites who possess the requisite systemic privilege to be racist. One is hard pressed to find reports of black-on-Asian racism. But the presumptuous white-black racism binary is being debunked by the coronavirus, we are told. The pandemic has brought a welcome expansion of the definition of racism.
“The coronavirus compounds inequalities,” argues a recent article at the Center for American Progress. “[S]tructural and environmental racism has produced extraordinarily high rates of serious chronic health conditions among people of color; and entrenched barriers in the health system continue to prevent people of color from obtaining the care they need.” The suggestion is that, because of existing health disparities, for which racism is the unitary explanation, the virus strengthens the grip of racism in America. Or is it the other way around? The author oscillates between the two theories.
But Covid-19 does not just expose and compound inequalities: it reveals systemic oppression, and the pervasive operation of whiteness, imbedded in America’s institutions and public policy. Inequalities are not a matter of regrettable happenstance. They are baked into the system by design. For racial minorities already weathering the toxic fumes of whiteness, in Sandra Kim’s words, another airborne pathogen is just icing on the poisonous cake.
This is the contention of the writers at the Root who argue that the pandemic exposes interest convergence—Derrick Bell’s term for the idea that “whites will promote racial advances for blacks only when they also promote white self-interest,” which apparently explains everything from the Brown v. Board decision to Obama’s presidency. Pleas by people of color to combat inequality are routinely dismissed as unworkable until an existential threat impacts white people. The emergence of the political will to stimulate the economy at present reveals that fiscal responsibility was a white lie all along, concocted to subjugate black and brown bodies.
It is not just conservative economic policy that irks the inequality police, however. American healthcare itself, like the public school system, simply is structural racism, plain and simple. Michelle Morse, social medicine instructor at Harvard Medical School, is aghast that most of her colleagues seem not to have learned this in medical school. (In fact, doctors, among other professions (even math teachers) are now being taught to think in these terms).
Rather than asking how structural racism impacts health and healthcare, says Morse, we must ask how the healthcare in America—and its global reach—embodies structural racism. Economic inequities are a root cause of health inequities globally, and drive morbidity and mortality in tragically predictable ways, but people of color are uniquely targeted by systems of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism.
Health professionals will never provide adequate care and rid the world of “global medical apartheid” unless they accept this, instructs Morse. What is to be done? First, anti-racist pedagogy must be employed to “accelerate change” towards “health equity.”
To be anti-racist, as Ibram X. Kendi defines it in his bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, is not simply to be “not-racist.” “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle … One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.” There is no such thing as a race-neutral position: there are only allies and detractors. Promoters of lukewarm policies are dangerous. Anti-racists must harness power, not persuasion, to combat those who insist on a racially neutral position, for neutrality (like colorblindness) is just a guise for racism and the preservation of white advantage. Discrimination, then, is not wrong so long as it is rightly directed, argues Kendi. Hence, an anti-racist is an activist willing to discriminate for the sake of “creating equity.” To help lawmakers identify the right discriminatory policies, Kendi has proposed an anti-racist constitutional amendment which would establish a “Department of Anti-racism (DOA),” tasked with
preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor[ing] those policies, investigat[ing] private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor[ing] public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
This is the approach to healthcare that Morse advocates: discriminatory policies for the sake of equity (i.e. equality of outcome). This antiracist work must also be intersectional—the intersectional disposition must inform all areas of life from personal relationships to public policy, as Ijeoma Oluo has made clear—“and [be] explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-misogynist, anti-ableist and anti-heteronormative.” Most importantly, this work must center the “lived experience of structural racism.”
Social distancing and the like are manifestations of affluent, white and male privilege. Those who cannot adapt to these measures are more vulnerable to infection. Instead of addressing this problem head on, the underlying structure to blame for inequity must be critiqued. At the same time, however, protests against lockdowns in California, for example, “exemplify” white privilege because defiance of such measures is sure to disadvantage the most vulnerable: racial minorities, the poor and the disabled.
Kendi has characterized the growing conflict between those who prioritize individual “freedom to harm” (and, therefore, want to ease lockdown restrictions and relax social distancing) over “community freedom from harm,” as a replay of the antebellum slavery debates in America. “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic,” reads the headline at the Atlantic. Like the newest Pulitzer winner, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kendi sees the lockdown debates as just the latest manifestation of the American ethos:
From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm … The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.
To people like Morse and Kendi, the coronavirus is “exposing our racial divides,” and the real problem—the “pandemic within the pandemic”—is the systemic white privilege baked into the system since the early seventeenth century—not an infectious virus.
Arguments like these influence public policy decisions. The UK’s Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), echoing the opinion of the National Health Service (NHS), recently called for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) health workers to be removed from the frontline response to Covid-19. Neil Mortensen, president elect of the RCS, cited well-documented statistics showing the disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME people. But, as Rakib Ehsan rightly observes, though ethnic and racial minorities may experience disproportionate infection rates, there are myriad reasons for this other than “injustice,” as Sadiq Khan has called it.
Khan’s approach, like that of Critical Social Justice identity politics, assumes a causal connection between race and infection because of widespread systemic racism and structural health inequity. Any disparities are per se evidence of racism. As Kendi once told the New York Times, “As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” These unproven, ideological assumptions lead Khan (like Kendi) to believe that a race-centric policy response is appropriate.
Unfortunately, public policy makers will find it difficult to carefully and appropriately assess any reported disparities, like those cited by RCS, and respond accordingly, because any and all talk of such disparities is enveloped in the half-baked assumptions of a Critical Theory-informed, identity politics worldview.
Until public officials can free themselves from such pressures, citations of racial disparities and cries for “health equity” will drive policy, as we see from the growing number of state governors in America who have launched task forces influenced by such considerations. Former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, has even proposed legislation to create a federal advisory group for the same ends.
The traditional nuclear family has also come under assault by Critical Social Justice warriors. Though, as intersectionalists, new critics of western family structures include criticisms of racism, capitalism, ableism, sexism and all other points of oppression in the matrix of domination.
Sheltering in place, quarantine orders and social distancing are all predicated on a white, capitalist, patriarchal vision of family structure and property, they say. Since not everyone has adequate housing, resources or family stability to comfortably comply with said policies, the reasoning goes, the edicts of state governors and Center for Disease Control guidelines serve to expose how oppressive such norms and structures are in the first place.
According to Sophie Lewis, coronavirus teaches us all that it’s time to abolish both the family and private households, which are “fundamentally unsafe space[s].” Queer and “feminized people” in particular cannot be expected to confine themselves to the “capitalist home.” Quoting the “feminist theorist and mother” Madeline Lane-McKinley, Lewis writes,
“Households are capitalism’s pressure cookers. This crisis will see a surge in housework—cleaning, cooking, caretaking, but also child abuse, molestation, intimate partner rape, psychological torture, and more.” Far from a time to acquiesce to “family values” ideology, then, the pandemic is an acutely important time to provision, evacuate and generally empower survivors of—and refugees from—the nuclear household … the private family qua mode of social reproduction still, frankly, sucks.
Going Nowhere Fast
I could go on. Douglas Murray has called out the insistence that the UK’s NHS focus their attention on transgenderism. Media outlets like Vice and Buzzfeed have been particularly concerned about transitioners whose gender reassignment surgeries have been delayed. This is, of course, because designating such surgeries non-essential exposes the cis-gender norms embedded in western conceptions of healthcare.
Last year, Lionel Shriver suggested that it would take a catastrophe to rouse the west from its identity politics fever dream. Shriver may prove correct—but not yet. Pandemic or no pandemic, identity politics is here to stay. Given what we have seen thus far, events seem likely to justify Houellebecq’s prediction, not Hannan’s. Critical Social Justice warriors are both indefatigable and opportunistic—and that bodes ill for the rest of us.