The mechanism of contagion in racism

How race came to function as fuel to an exploitative economic system. Take the case of South Africa.

South Africa's Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, during a COVID-19 briefing. Image via Government of South Africa on Flickr CC.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to extensive discussion on the consequences of contagion—the spread of disease through physical contact. A virus is what Slavoj Zizek describes as a “stupid, self-replicating mechanism.” In the case of COVID-19, its replication represents a troubling possibility that contraction may result in the suffering or death of the host. This phenomenon has proven to be vexing, not only from a biological perspective, but also from economic, social, political, and geographical perspectives. Humanity’s attempt to control the detrimental effects of this viral outbreak entail various strategies, including country-wide or regional lock downs, calls for social distancing, mask-wearing, and other public health measures. It is increasingly clear that different strategies entail different trade-offs.

Certainly, it seems as though all viable strategies imply some price that must be paid, whether in lives or livelihoods. The politically contentious concern of the spread of biological contagion is now accompanied by an anti-racist movement sparked by the abhorrent killing of George Floyd. These events are more than just temporally concurrent. Racism can be thought with contagion, insofar as it represents the workings of another form of contagion—contagion as analogy employed in racist thought and practice. Considering the trade-off of lives and livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the killings and assaults of Black people at the hands of the American police, reveals the way in which race functions to fuel an exploitative economic system.

How did racism get here?

The legacy of evolutionary biology is the promotion of the belief in significant biological difference between races, present in arguments defending social Darwinism and the study of eugenics. Although support for the biological justification of racism wanes, racism has not died out. Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of South African apartheid (and Prime Minister from 1956 to 1966), promoted such an understanding, evidenced by his speeches. This social reading of racism advanced the notion of “separate destinies” for different races—a smokescreen of rational reason used to justify racial separation. Socially constructed forms of racism manifested during apartheid, clearly through the analogy of contagion. The novelist J.M. Coetzee describes this mechanism by drawing attention to the apartheid government’s obsessive prohibition of miscegenation (so-called “race-mixing”), apparent in the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act. Coetzee points out the relation between viral epidemic and racism, “from being a carrier who is black … blackness itself becomes the infection.” This mechanism has played out during the current pandemic in the social victimization of people of Chinese descent—or, generally, East Asian descent—and also in the racism against people of African descent in China. Together, these are exemplary of the way biological contagion is employed in racism.

The workings of the racist analogy of contagion continue to drive both explicit and implicit forms of racism. Let us consider how this might (and possibly does) play out. Actual contagion involves the exposure of people to the possibility of death (some more than others, often depending on social circumstances). Metaphorical contagion employs this line of reasoning to justify exposing black lives to the threat of death in the US (and elsewhere), as with Palestinians in occupied Palestine and Israel. In the case of a virus, death occurs because of the failure of an immune system to fight it off. When the analogy of contagion functions in relation to race, blackness (or otherness), although conceived of as sickness, cannot kill the black person. If immunity is impossible, and so is recovery, the duty of killing becomes externalized—a task taken on by murderous white supremacists. And so we see how the analogy functions as an explanatory device for understanding the disproportionate use of excessive force and/or killing employed against Black people by police in the US.

How the analogy of contagion is sacrificed under exploitative capitalism

The absurdity of a mentality fueled by the analogy of contagion is evidenced by the dependence of white apartheid on black labor, in which this analogy undermines itself insofar as economic outcomes are concerned. As an example, during apartheid, white people were not willing to forgo their dependence on black labor to clean their houses, wash their laundry, and look after their children—while simultaneously having them eat and drink from a designated set of crockery and make use of separate ablution facilities. Verwoerd and others explicitly acknowledged the dependence on black labor as a necessity standing in the way of so-called “total separation.” Beyond just domestic employment, other industries during South African apartheid also depended greatly on cheap black labor. The apartheid arrangement, premised greatly on disgust for black people, justified their presence in industry insofar as it helped white owners of capital to carry out their economic objectives. Lives were spared so that labor could be exploited, at the expense of consistency underlying the analogy of contagion, despite it working to defend killings as it saw fit. The apartheid obsession with preventing miscegenation along with building the economy on the backs of black workers, highlights the crucial and inextricable linkages between racial oppression and economic injustice.

This phenomenon is also apparent in the contemporary context during the COVID-19 crisis. While some countries lock down the economy and allow the health care sector to get its affairs in order, minimum wage workers in the US are forced to risk their lives in order to keep their financial lives from falling apart. The US political economy is proving to be one that is unwilling to consider a situation in which this trade-off would not have to occur.

Thinking through the present moment

The lesson to be drawn from such a comparison is that racism is more than just this (albeit present) fear of race mixing. It includes the economic oppression of working class black people and other racial groups. The current economic setup depends on an underclass so desperate that exploitation looks to them like security. In striving against racism, naivety about this fact results in action which deals blows that fail to land as hard as they could. To resist racism should involve simultaneously addressing systemic factors which prevent financial security. The high cost of tertiary education, for example, is one way in which the already poor either become deeply indebted or remain subject to the labor exploitation that is minimum wage work. If a battle against racism ignores this aspect, it may for example define freedom as equal access to economic activities. If it does this, it submits to already-present economic exploitation which functions together with racism. Both the deep implicit workings of racist beliefs, as well as the economic system that incentivizes such implicit beliefs, must be chipped away.

In mourning the unjust deaths of our black brothers and sisters, we must try with resilience and strategic action to create a more just future, while taking heed of the inextricable intertwinement of the social and the economic. This means actively reconsidering the concepts of equality and retribution, and holding neoliberal institutions responsible for their role in incentivizing racism.

Further Reading