We have heard this phrase frequently the last few years. It infiltrates so many spaces. It has become a cry, a pleading, and an acknowledgment of the worlds we live in. Yes, you have heard it. You might have even seen it. “Racism is a virus.” It has become embedded in our everyday discourse about racism.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and our concern with the viral decimation of our communities in 2020 and 2021, we have seen an upsurge in anti-Black racism and anti-Asian racism. With the prevalent discourse and anxiety over COVID, we now witness an understanding of racism as resembling the pathways of a virus. “Racism is a virus.” Is racism a virus? This phrase has been used so much in public discourse that it has started to be understood as a truth. It is said and felt as true. “Racism is a virus.”
Racism is not a virus! Such an assumption of racism as structured and functional in ways similar to a virus then eliminates any possibility of mobilizing, organizing, and envisioning a world free of racism. It absolves us as morally responsible. Racism, as a virus, is given life and agency whereby it is seen as an organism doing something to us. Such a discourse displaces responsibility. Accordingly, we can fall prey to a simplistic account of race and racism. Simplistic accounts cannot foster change. If we assume and theorize racism as a virus, we individualize it while constructing racism as a foreign and invasive species. The epidemiological matter and life course of a virus are then substituted for the social forces and histories of racism. For example, Britannica defines viruses as not free-living and thus “they cannot reproduce and carry on metabolic processes without a host cell.”
Is the United States the host cell? Is racism something that needs the nation and nation-state? The discourses of racism as a virus posits it as something alien to the national body. Now, we have to ask ourselves again: do these systematic understandings of the virus and US history align with the cry “racism is a virus”?
Racism is not a virus. It is not something that exists external to the national body and body politic. Rather, racism is an instrumental part of the national body and politic. Racism is not a sporadic thing that affects the nation but rather part of the very foundational structure of the nation.
The discourse of “racism is a virus” misses the key socio-historical facts in the formation of the United States. Race was not a footnote but rather the main text in composing the nation. The early templates of race bounded up with various forms of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe played a pivotal role, as Junaid Rana explains in Terrifying Muslims (Duke University Press, 2011), in the colonial constructions of indigenous communities as heathens. Stereotyped as heathens and considered not modern, we see how “discovering land” is a euphemism for indigenous dispossession and settler-colonialism that erases the histories of indigenous communities. “Finding” this land was an act of racial mapping, racist narrating of history and its exclusions, settler claiming of land, and setting up the displacement and exclusions of indigenous communities (Jodi Byrd’s The Transit of Empire, 2011). The very beginnings of the nation needed indigenous death along with indigenous exclusions from the terrain of rights, political voice, and sovereignty. Nation-states rely so much on race to delineate the boundaries of citizenship.
Race is not something that invades the body but rather the lifeline of the national white body and its institutions of governance. In fact, we see how past political discourse has appropriated biological and epidemiological language to describe non-white and non-Christian communities, like Jews and the Chinese, as insects, vermin, diseases, and viruses (Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides, 2001). “Racism as a virus” trope does not address how racism has described certain groups as the disease to the body politic.
“Racism is a virus” discourse fails to account for the politics, culture, and economics that celebrated, profited, and backed the enslavement of Africans. The centuries of slavery did not disappear after the Civil War and the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Rather, the brutal killing of Black people, “strange fruit,” and histories of lynching showcase how the nation denied basic humanity and rights to Black communities while needing them as exploitable labor (W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, 1903; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, 2010). Thus, we see the deputizing of white citizens to capture, contain, and kill fugitive slaves and freed Black people (Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed. 2004). These political practices are part of our history and our contemporary moment.
What we have in this current moment of increased incarceration of Black communities and on-going death at the hands of the agents of the state is not a virus and pandemic. Black death is the result of racism that infiltrates all aspects of the legislative, educational, and policing institutions.
A virus is something external to the body. However, racism is not external to the body politic of the US. It is an important part of the original structure and foundation of the national body. Additionally, communities of color are in that process conjured as something external corporeally, epidemiologically, medically, religiously, culturally, philosophically, and politically to the national body.
The experience of Asians on US shores illustrates how the very category of national exclusion and the maintenance of Whiteness were sutured together. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is the only federal legislation in US history that specifically excluded one racial or ethnic group—Chinese laborers, especially Chinese men. The exclusion of the Chinese proved vital to structuring US citizenship for White, Black, and other non-white communities (Sarah Gualtieri’s Between Arab and White, 2009; Helen Jun’s Race for Citizenship, 2011; Neda Maghbouleh’s The Limits of Whiteness, 2017).
In the process, immigrants and migrants are coded as danger and as a virus, which we have seen the last year with the term “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” These racist epithets foreground the nation and its Whiteness as the point of health. Thus, we must be skeptical and wary of the phrase “racism is a virus” when this same language coded in epidemiological terms is vital to the racialization and the stigmatization of Asian Americans and rising anti-Asian racism during this time of COVID-19.
We must offer analysis and solutions that account for racism as a structural matter and having structural force. If racism were a virus, it would get all of us. Or, we could also be vaccinated and racism could be exterminated like smallpox. While nearly all of us can consume racist ideologies and practice racism, the material effects of racism are not borne by all communities equally. There are some of us that continue to face the wrath of white supremacy and racism. If racism is a virus, what is the vaccine? What is the dose or vaccine that prevents it from spreading from person to person and institution to institution?
It seems to me that Whiteness is the vaccine that secures and affirms the White health of the nation. It is a dose that various communities have fought hard to secure. However, as we know with US history, Whiteness is a vaccine that is not universal and not applicable to all.
With the discourse of “racism is a virus,” racism is seen as exception and as a disorder instead of the very order of life in the US. Once we biologize it then we remove the very real material impacts and institutional make-up of racism. Racism and race have shaped the past and present; it will continue to shape our future.
In order to undue racism, we have to restructure the very boundaries of belonging, civil rights, human rights, and life that secure life on the broadest terms. This restructuring must be educational, political, cultural, economic, and ecological. Only then would race and racism become foreign to the system of governance and the nation-state. Only by creating a new world with the broadest categories of belonging, affirmation, rights, and mobility can racism become a virus. We must continue to organize, mobilize, and collaborate to fight racism and dismantle the very system that perpetuates it.
Stanley Thangaraj is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at the City College of New York. His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making. His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures.