Black people in the United States have long known that all white people, at any time, have the potential to hurt them. For centuries, white people have had easy access to histories of racial power and deploy them, almost like a pathogen, against Black people. Against people like me.
Before the country erupted into a massive conflagration this past week, these thoughts came to mind when we first learned of the saga of Amy Cooper and her loaded interactions with Christian Cooper in New York City’s Central Park on May 25. Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her unleashed dog in direct violation of the posted signs in that area. Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man birdwatching in the park, asked Ms. Cooper to leash her dog. Amy Cooper quickly became incandescent with rage, particularly when Christian Cooper began to film her and refused her entreaties to stop. In front of a recording camera, Amy Cooper threatened to call the police and say “an African American man [was] threatening” her. She did just that. The video itself, distributed widely on social media after the incident, is revealing. Ms. Cooper demonstrates an acute understanding of the raced and gendered dynamics of that historic encounter: that the police exist to protect and defend her interests as a white woman ostensibly under threat. Her actions in Central Park reveal a savvy understanding that accusing a Black man of threatening her safety would result in a rapid police response and play out along familiar, racialized lines.
The incident has several disturbing parallels throughout history. Countless violent race riots in the United States during the Nadir of American Race Relations (roughly from 1880 to 1923) occurred after a perceived threat to the sanctity of white womanhood by a Black male attacker. Race riots in Atlanta in 1906 and Springfield, Illinois in 1908 erupted after allegations of Black men assaulting white women spread through the white community. Most notably, the devastating 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” began after local whites believed a Black man had forced himself upon a white woman.
The idea that white women must be protected from black male predation for the security of white men and women more broadly did not end with the Nadir. Black teenager Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, claimed that he had inappropriately flirted with her. Bryant recanted her story decades later. The very park where Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper interacted was the site where a white woman jogger was assaulted in 1989, leading to an eponymous case that galvanized the nation for months, resulting in the arrest and wrongful imprisonment of five Black teenagers for years.
All of these histories intersected in that tense video exchange. As Amy Cooper felt angry, humiliated, or simply peevish in that moment in Central Park, she turned to a tool she inherently knew would save her, would protect her, and would punish the Black man in front of her. It was a tool that so many white people have access to, whether they want to admit it or not. It is a fundamental power relationship that white people are very invested in ignoring.
What was fascinating was that Amy Cooper genuinely believed herself to be “innocent,” to be “good,” to not be a “bad” one. As did the hundreds of white people I saw disavowing, condemning, decrying her and her vile actions. The very act of disavowing Amy Cooper served two purposes—it allowed all people to rightfully decry racist violence, but it also allowed white people to imagine themselves as innocent, as not those kinds of people.
What, then, is a way to understand whiteness in the United States, and the specific power (often of life or death) that is offered to its possessors against other people? Like many in these last few months, I’ve spent virtually all of my time at home, attempting to avoid interactions with others because of COVID-19. I am aware that even if I do not feel sick, I may still be infected and capable of spreading the virus to others. In turn, I may inadvertently come in contact with people who are immunocompromised or otherwise weakened and initiate a fatal infection within them. I would call this always present death potential asymptomatic lethality.
In this way, people like Amy Cooper are not unlike asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. They live their lives thinking they’re fine and healthy, contributing in positive ways to society. Yet, without warning, their body brings death to someone like me, a fact that absolutely surprises them. Recognizing the asymptomatic lethality of whiteness, like the ostensibly “healthy” but asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier, pushes past claims of innocence and instead focuses on the daily, deadly potential that white people can bring in a society structured through supremacist violence.
This is a difficult concept for many to face. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, white Americans imagine themselves fundamentally as the heroes in the national story, and they do not react well to the idea that their quotidian existences may have been bought by the past and present suffering of millions throughout this country’s history.1 White people pointedly ignore that American citizenship was exclusively for “free white men,” and that the government restricted full legal personhood from Black and indigenous people throughout much of the nineteenth century. Whiteness is, at its heart, an identity offered to some at the violent, historic exclusion of many.
This of course does not mean that all white people are equally positioned in American society. As Gina Crossley-Corcoran has pointed out, white people can be poor, can be queer, can be marginalized in other ways. But even these groups get a particular benefit of the doubt in their whiteness, and they do not have the additive factor of being Black in a society set up to routinely punish, hurt, and minimize such people. Nor does it mean (and I am weary of stating this) that white people as an aggregate are vaudevillian villains, twirling their waxed mustaches on the hunt for Black blood. One of the more exhausting conversations Black people have with white people routinely centers on white people’s intent in a racist society. I am uninterested in whether or not Amy Cooper imagined herself to be a racist when she committed an undeniably racist and cruel act. White folks specifically want to be reassured that they are the good ones—only rare and extremely overt acts of racism are irredeemable, like Amy Cooper’s. Like John Randolph (Jay Smooth) once observed, I’m uninterested in knowing if a pickpocket imagines himself to be a thief; I just want my wallet back. Perhaps most important to realize is that whiteness—and within it, the power to hurt, marginalize, or destroy people of color, especially Black people—is an embodied identity that doesn’t need the person to believe themselves to be “bad” or racist to work.
Like an asymptomatic carrier, white people move through the world feeling that things are alright. Yet interpersonal interactions bring with them the possibility to be very lethal to black people. To deal with the potential of this deadly whiteness, we need to first recognize that it exists. White people can’t ameliorate the violence of something they don’t believe to be real. If white people acknowledge the existence of potential death within every interaction, that’s the first step toward change.
I see a connection between people’s refusal to wear masks and white people’s refusal to recognize that they all have the racist power of our society to use as a cudgel against Black people. In both instances, there is a recourse to an almost belligerent innocence—I am fine and I am safe and I am good and I am okay and how dare you suggest otherwise—that covers a genuine fear that if they weren’t “safe,” if they weren’t “healthy,” something would be gravely wrong. But something is wrong: and that thing is white supremacy, and the reality is that every white person carries the opportunity to harm and even kill Black people.
Asymptomatic lethality aside, it’s not a great leap to connect the current coronavirus pandemic to the extant history of white supremacy in the United States. This week dozens of public health and disease experts signed an open letter supporting continued protests against police brutality and historic violence against Black Americans. The letter stated clearly that white supremacy presented “a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” Histories of unequal access to medical care, economic opportunities, and housing for Black Americans have left them uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of SARS-CoV-2, in addition to the already present risk of death at the hands of police, including incidents instigated by white observers like Amy Cooper.
The series of (predominantly white) national protests against quarantine restrictions in mid May saw Americans insist on the right—the very freedom—to spread disease without restriction across the country. The mask, the marker of potential asymptomatic infectiousness, was instead rendered as a check on one’s ability to freely move without fear. Similarly, white recourses to innocence can involve a vocal denial of asymptomatic lethality. Just as Amy Cooper evinced shock and surprise at her ability to invoke a likely fatal encounter, so too, have former coronavirus denialists found themselves reluctant believers in viral spread after becoming sick.
What is the takeaway, then, from this asymptomatic lethality? Thinking about these two realities—a silent viral contagion and a daily threat of racial violence—as being connected through histories of white supremacy help us recognize the continued ways in which historic inequity plays out in our present. Asymptomatic lethality offers an opportunity for white people in the United States to turn away from the need for innocence, recognizing the ways in which their very security, as expressed in the police force most directly, threatens Black lives from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Tony McDade to countless others. Doing this work, especially in this moment of crisis, could literally save lives.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Return to text.