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One reflection based on the reading.941024
SREXXX10.1177/2332649220941024Sociology of Race and EthnicityBonilla-Silva
Original Research Article
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
© American Sociological Association 2020
DOI: 10.1177/2332649220941024
Color-Blind Racism in
Pandemic Times
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva1
In this article the author examines how the frameworks of color-blind racism have influenced many topics
during the pandemic. Using readily available material from popular culture (TV shows, newspaper and
magazine articles, and advertisements) and from statements by government officials, the author examines
how color blindness has shaped our national discussion on essential workers and heroes, charity, and
differential mortality. The main argument is that color-blind racism is limiting our understanding of the
structural nature of the various racial problems coronavirus disease 2019 has revealed, making it difficult
to envision the kinds of policies needed to address them. the author concludes by summarizing what these
ideological perspectives block from view as well as addressing the nascent discursive cracks that might be
used to produce alternative frames for interpreting matters and organizing collective action.
racial ideology, color-blind racism, pandemic, frameworks, disasters, ideology
Ideologies are always on the move, as they must be
capable of expanding their influence and adapting
to new situations. This is the case of color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2017; Doane 2017) during the
coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Its major frameworks have significantly shaped
how Americans think about racial matters since the
1970s and, unsurprisingly, our current discussions
about coronavirus-related matters. The core of
color-blind racism, unlike Jim Crow racism, is
explaining racial matters as the outcomes of nonracial dynamics (for similar arguments, see Bobo and
Smith 1997). The four central frameworks of colorblind ideology are abstract liberalism (explaining
racial matters in an abstract, decontextualized manner), naturalization (naturalizing racialized outcomes such as neighborhood segregation), cultural
racism (attributing racial differences to cultural
practices), and minimization of racism. These
frameworks are molding how we understand,
among other things, (1) the work and role of essential workers, (2) the differential mortality rates of
COVID-19, and (3) hunger in the pandemic.
These color-blind-infused discussions are dangerous, as they transpire in a mostly innocent, nice
manner. For instance, who would object to the idea
that “we are all in this together”? Why might such
a statement of unity in the middle of a pandemic be
regarded as having racial implications? Most people would think like New York governor Andrew
Cuomo, who, after learning that his younger
brother had contracted the virus, tweeted that
COVID-19 is “the great equalizer.”1 This is the
power of ideology in general, and of racial ideology in particular: it works best when it is not direct
and seems to represent how everybody thinks
(Bonilla-Silva 2001).
In this article I discuss how color-blind racism
has affected our understanding of the three aforementioned subjects. As these three ideologically
colored issues are widely diffused, I concentrate on
analyzing the messages they convey as well as
what they fail to make explicit. This project is
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Duke University, Department of
Sociology, 268 Soc/Psych Building, Durham, NC 90088,
Email: eb48@duke.edu
based on a momentous, still unfolding event in
which researchers are homebound. Thus, there is
little to gain in trying to be “methodologically
correct”—waiting for systematic, representative
data on the matters examined would likely make
the analysis less relevant, as such data will likely be
available long after the pandemic ends. However,
this is not a call for sloppiness. I will be as clear
about the relevance of the material selected for discussion and, when possible, provide evidence of
the level of influence of a source.2
My main argument is that the color-blind racial
framing of these three issues limits recognizing
that the problems made apparent during the
COVID-19 pandemic have a structural nature (e.g.,
class and racial inequalities, the lack of a proper
safety net, and the need for universal health care).
More significantly for my analysis, structural racism is mostly dislodged (or minimized) as a central
factor shaping the nation. Consequently, colorblind racism–inflected discussions obscure how the
problems at hand are worse for communities of
color and may require race-based social policies to
address them—official discourse during disasters
tends to ignore marginalized communities’ viewpoints and reflects dominant narratives (Tierney,
Bevc, and Kuligowski 2006). To be clear, my claim
is not that how some of these issues are being
framed is new (e.g., Whites’ idea that Black and
Brown people are sick because of their culture or
behavior, or because they are biologically different,
is not new) but that color-blind racism has made
these ideas more palatable to the general public
and, therefore, more salient.
I proceed as follows. First, I define the notion of
“racial ideology.” Second, I discuss the three subjects shaped by color-blind discourse, explain each
of them, make visible their connection to racial
stratification, and try to clarify what the framing
obscures. Last, I summarize in the discussion section the ideological work these three issues perform and mention two other emerging subjects
influenced by color-blind racism. As ideologies are
not without contradictions and cracks, I briefly
highlight how the tremendously fluid conjuncture at
which we are living—the confluence of a pandemic,
a recession, and a race-based protest movement—
has allowed counternarratives to emerge and for
alternative policies to be contemplated.
Racial Ideology
My goal in this section is modest. I outline the central features of the racial ideology paradigm to orient my analysis (for a full discussion, see
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 00(0)
Bonilla-Silva 2003). For good reasons, most theorizations on ideology begin with Marx’s (2000)
classic The German Ideology. Marx’s premise is
that the fundamental division of any society is
based on class; hence the dominant class attempts
to present its views as universal. Second, the privileged position of the dominant class facilitates representing its views as universal. Third, the dominant
class’s ideas are fundamentally the “ideal expression of the dominant material relationships” (Marx
2000:192). Many Marxists assume that class
explains all divisions in any society, but race and
feminist scholars have long contended that race
and gender are central axes of division in modernity that cannot be relegated to “secondary contradictions” (Omi and Winant 2014; Hill Collins
1990). Yet Marx’s general insights about class ideology are still useful and can be extended to the
analysis of racial matters. Thus, racial ideology is
the racially-based frameworks used by actors to
explain and justify (dominant race) or challenge
(subordinate race or races) the racial status quo.
Although modern societies articulate various
forms of hierarchy and, thus, societal ideology
encompasses frames from gender, racial, class,
and other forms of hierarchical structurations, I
focus here on how aspects of the larger
“ideological ensemble” play out in the field of
race relations. I label these frameworks “racial”
albeit I recognize that many (e.g., the frame of
abstract liberalism) are used to justify gender
and class inequality. (Bonilla-Silva 2003:65)
Of all the functions of racial ideology, a central
one is providing arguments to “account for racial
inequality” (Bonilla-Silva 2003:74). This is part of
what I intend to document in this article: that
COVID-19 pandemic subjects infused by colorblind frameworks directly—or by omission—discount racism or minimize its role.
Two other points before I proceed. First, ideologies are embedded not just in newspaper articles
and speeches by politicians but also in social texts
(e.g., films, pictures). Thus, although I include
comments from politicians, I rely heavily on material from popular media, as “ideologies are
acquired, expressed, enacted and reproduced by
discourse” (van Dijk 2006:124). Second, students
of ideology have pointed out that ideological fields
are always partial and never “pure” (Irvine 2019).
Rarely does one find ideological expressions that
represent exclusively the dominant group’s views—
they usually incorporate some ideas from subordinated groups (Poulantzas 1978). Also, as racial
ideology is often articulated within ideological
items expressive of other social divisions or
wedged in generic arguments (Hall 1986), most of
the material analyzed here does not reflect specific
discussions on race. Yet I will show that race looms
large in these seemingly nonracial discussions.
Last, in any ideological formation, various gender,
class, or racial ideological iterations coexist. In
contemporary America, for example, most Whites
espouse color blindness, but a segment clearly does
not, including the president, who has a long history
of overt racist statements and practices (BonillaSilva 2019a), which he continues dispensing to
date (from labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese
virus” to advocating a Nixon-like “law and order”
approach to deal with protesters).
Praise for “Our Heroes”
Stories about heroes during this pandemic are ubiquitous. Companies such as Kraft-Heinz, Budweiser,
Amazon, and Walmart have all produced commercials or symbols heralding “essential workers” as
heroes. These advertisements are broadcast on a
variety of mainstream networks. These stories also
appear daily on TV segments, in which news
anchors salute “our heroes” and in print media
bearing headlines such as, “Heroes of the Front
Lines: Stories of the Courageous Workers Risking
Their Own Lives to Save Ours” (Time 2020). The
writer of a piece about cartoonists celebrating “the
heroes amid the pandemic” stated the core elements of this framing:
Companies and community members at all levels
are celebrating and elevating these unsung heroes
in countless ways: Some are donating personal
protective equipment, giving them free products
or offering free meals. Others are simply saying
thank you to those continuing to work. Residents,
streamers and students around the Bay Area have
united to collect hand sanitizer for local shelters,
hospices and jails, create masks for hospital
workers or donate money to international groups
aiding other countries fighting the pandemic.
(Bouscher 2020)
One of the cartoons accompanying the story
depicts a “Supernurse” (a White woman dressed as
Superman) flying a frail man away from the virus,
while another echoes the iconic image of Iwo Jima,
featuring a White-looking scientist, nurse, doctor, and
first responder symbolically planting an American
flag. Although there is no question that “essential
workers” are sacrificing themselves and deserve
praise, labeling them as “heroes” clouds our vision.
Our economy and our health care system cannot
depend on “heroes,” particularly when so many of
them are workers of color. What is needed is commitment from the state and corporations to provide workers with the necessary protection to safely fulfill their
jobs, as well as adequate pay for their sacrifices.
Framing these workers as “heroes” makes us less
likely to empathize and support those who choose to
strike, protest, or remain absent from work during the
pandemic. Nurses, for example, are organizing and
filing complaints to the Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, and delivery workers at
Amazon and Instacart threatened to strike unless they
receive adequate protection, sick leave, and hazard
pay (DeSantis 2020).
Protests from these essential workers are
already happening and will likely increase. As
recent cases have shown, when “heroes” do not
behave according to our archetypal notion of heroism, they become villains. For example, 10 nurses
at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa
Monica, California, were suspended after refusing
to enter coronavirus patient rooms before being
supplied with N95 masks (Murphy 2020). Hospital
management justified the suspension as due to
“[nurses’] refusal to treat the patients” which “constituted abandonment and negligence” (Murphy
2020). The hospital management’s statement
exemplifies how the hero framework deflects
responsibility and blames workers:
We are so grateful for the heroic work our
nurses perform each day and will not let the
actions of a few diminish the appreciation we
have for all our nurses and their commitment to
our community. . . . Saint John’s cherishes its
nurses and is taking precautions sanctioned by
leading world, national, state and local health
agencies to ensure their safety. (Baker 2020)
How is color-blind racism shaping the discussion
of “our heroes”? Heroes, particularly those more
exposed to the virus, are disproportionally workers
of color, even though one would not know it from
the images circulating in the media. Our racialized
class structure leads Black and Brown workers to be
in jobs more exposed to COVID-19 than Whites.
Black and Brown workers represent 50 percent of
janitors, the bulk of nurses in supportive positions
(those more exposed to hazardous conditions and
receiving less protection), 44 percent of construction
workers, 50 percent of correctional officers, 52 percent of bus drivers, a whopping 70 percent of graders and sorters of agricultural products (these are the
workers at Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, and other meatpacking companies), and 30 percent of police and
sheriff patrol officers (Bureau of Labor Statistics
2020a). The abstract liberal way we discuss “our
heroes” blinds us to the racial composition of the
group, preventing the deeper question from surfacing: why are workers of color overrepresented in
these dangerous, low-paying jobs in the first place?
Praising them as corporations, politicians, and
celebrities do naturalizes the racial status quo.
One occupation that clearly shows the high
exposure of workers of color to the virus is phlebotomists, 50 percent of whom are Black and
Latino. Their basic job is to draw blood from
patients, and during the pandemic many have been
asked to “volunteer” to do coronavirus testing
(Velasquez-Caldera 2020). Because of their high
rates of exposure to fluids and people, phlebotomists have a higher than average exposure to the
virus. Adding testing for COVID-19 to their duties,
which required quick training, as “prior to the pandemic, only nurses and doctors were allowed to do
the swabbing” (Velasquez-Caldera 2020), has
made their job even more dangerous, particularly
considering that their median pay is $35,000
(Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020b).
The level of exposure to the virus is even higher
for bus drivers, janitors, and workers in the meatpacking industry, all occupations with very high representations of workers of color. Hence, rather than
admiration, salutes from our porches and windows,
or the song “Good Job” by Alicia Keys, what all
essential workers need, but particularly workers of
color, are masks, hazard pay, sick leave, and higher
wages. The virus has exposed the effects of the erosion of our limited, highly racialized welfare state,
which has left large segments of society vulnerable to
health and economic disasters (Ward 2005). This erosion was catapulted by the highly racialized politics
of the 1980s and 1990s, when the image of the “welfare queen” and the notion of “welfare dependency”
were foisted by Republicans and Democrats
(Quadagno 1994). Accordingly, the kryptonite debilitating our true superheroes—essential workers of
color—is not the virus but years of antigovernment,
neoliberal, racialized rhetoric, and structural racism.
“Donate to Feeding America’s
Coronavirus Fund”
The title for this section comes from the Web site of
Feeding America, the nation’s “largest domestic hungerrelief organization” (http://feedingamerica.org). Almost
two weeks after the United States initiated social distancing measures to mitigate the spread of the virus,
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 00(0)
nonessential workers began to lose their jobs. As of
April 30, the total number of unemployment claims
has reached 30 million and will likely increase in the
next few weeks (Dmitrieva 2020). Adding underemployed workers to the mix, the number of food-insecure
Americans has skyrocketed to about 30 percent of the
working class and, for workers of color, an even higher
In response, the media, churches, and other
organizations have blanketed the airwaves with
stories about food banks serving two to six times
more clients than usual. These stories are heart
wrenching and invariably end with reporters’ or
organizations’ asking viewers for donations. The
precarious condition of workers in America is such
that many of those deemed “nonessential” are now
food insecure and relying on food banks. Food
insecurity, however, is not due to the virus. Between
12 percent and 15 percent of households have been
food insecure for a long time, and the rate has been
much higher for households of color. According to
Odoms-Young (2018), the rate of food insecurity
for Whites fluctuated from 7 percent to 10 percent
from 2001 to 2016, but for Blacks and Latinos it
ranged from 17 percent to 27 percent. This is why
hunger “is a racial equity issue” (Nitschke 2017).
Framing hunger as a charity matter derails us
from thinking about why workers were out of food
after just a few weeks of unemployment, why there
were such high levels of food insecurity before the
pandemic, and, more significantly for my discussion, the fact that hunger is also a highly racialized
affair. This framing universalizes hunger in an
abstract liberal way when data on hunger show that
a quarter of households of color were food insecure
before the pandemic hit; this rate has likely
increased since the pandemic began. The racialized
facts around food insecurity will require in the
short term race-targeted, creative approaches to
help those most affected by the pandemic.4
Why is the United States food insecure when it
is the richest, most powerful nation in the world?
America is food insecure because income and
wealth inequality have returned to Gilded Age levels. In 1929, the Gini coefficient was 49.91, and by
2018, after decades of staying in the 30s, it had
climbed back to 48.22 (Atkinson et al. 2017;
DePrieto 2020). Data on inequality are telling:
whereas “S&P 500 firm CEOs were paid 278 times
as much as average U.S. workers in 2018” (Institute
for Policy Studies 2020), restaurant servers, to use
one relevant example, hardly improved their earnings since the early 1990s, and their federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $2.13 (Institute
for Policy Studies 2020).
A 2019 study revealed that about 40 percent of
Americans do not have enough savings (a minimum of $400) to deal with an emergency (Board of
Governors of the Federal Reserve System 2020).
This figure does not show the racial disparities in
liquid savings, and it is estimated that whereas “the
typical household had . . . 31 days of income in such
savings, the typical black household had just five
days’ worth” (Currier and Elmi 2018). The billionaire class Bernie Sanders talked about during his
presidential campaign run is real and is cannibalizing everyone. Three members of this class—Jeff
Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett—own more
assets than the bottom half, and the top 1 percent
owns more than half of the entire stock market
(Institute for Policy Studies 2020). Shamefully, the
wealth of the billionaire class has increased by at
least 10 percent (close to $300 billion) between
January 1, 2020, and April 10, 2020 (Collins,
Ocampo, and Paslaski 2020). As is the case with
almost all data on inequality, the gaps are larger for
families of color. For example, in 2016, 37 percent
of Black and 33 percent of Latino families had zero
wealth, compared with 15.5 percent of White families (Collins et al. 2020).
Racial disparities in food insecurity are a direct
reflection of the general trends in racial inequality:
higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, less wealth, poor access to retirement plans
(older folks of color are poorer than their White
counterparts), and access to grocery stores
(Nitschke 2017). The charity framing leads people
to pity the less fortunate, which may be a good
thing, but it also absolves the government and businesses from responsibility. After all, if the state
enforced a “living wage” across the nation, had
programs to deal with unemployment and a decent
safety net, adequately taxed the rich, and implemented race-targeted programs on a variety of
areas (e.g., employment, education, wealth), we
would not have hunger in America.5 Hunger is the
outcome of the lack of democracy and the concentration of power in the hands of the few (Moore
Lappé and Collins 2015). Therefore, charity is not
the fundamental way to address hunger or to close
the racial gap in food insecurity.
“It’s Very Sad. It’s Nothing
We Can Do about It Right
Now . . .”
The heading for this section comes from a statement made by Dr. Anthony Fauci in a press conference at which Donald Trump and his coronavirus
task force acknowledged the racial mortality
disparities (Hellmann 2020). The subject of racial
health disparities extending beyond the pandemic
has garnered media attention and was heightened
by statements by Trump and his officers. In a press
conference, Trump pondered about the huge differences in mortality between Blacks (for the record,
Latinos and Native Americans too)6 and “other
We’re seeing tremendous evidence that African
Americans are affected at a far greater percen­tage
number than other citizens of our country. But
why is it that the African American community
is so much, numerous times more than everybody
else? We want to find the reason to it. (Collins
Although it is very important for the media to
cover racial disparities in morbidity and mortality
due to COVID-19, by not explaining adequately why
they exist, we are left with the quasi-explanations
offered by members of Trump’s task force such as
Dr. Fauci, Ben Carson, Surgeon General Jerome
Adams, and other media personalities. Their comments converge on one point: Black and Brown
people are viewed as unhealthy, which naturalizes
the reason for their health preconditions. To be
clear, these (non)explanations are thrown into fertile soil, as Whites already believed that the cultural
practices of people of color (I have labeled this perspective as the biologization of culture, as it presents culture as immutable) and their biology were
different from Whites’ (Graves 2001). Color blindness is a curious standpoint, as Whites can claim
that race is largely irrelevant in life while at the
same time believe that race is biology (“All Blacks
are . . .”) or reified culture (“They don’t have jobs
because they are lazy”).
An example of these (non)explanations comes
from Dr. Fauci:
As Dr. [Deborah] Birx said correctly, it’s not
that they are getting infected more often, it’s
that when they do get infected, their underlying
medical conditions—the diabetes, hypertension,
the obesity, the asthma—those are the kind of
things that wind them up in the [intensive care
unit] and ultimately give him a higher death
rate. (Nelson 2020)
This statement reifies the deficiency narrative
and opens the door for racist “culture of poverty”
discourses (Cunningham and Scarlatto 2018).
Similarly, in a very telling moment, Surgeon
General Adams said,
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 00(0)
Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. And call
your friends and family. Check in on your
mother; she wants to hear from you right
now. . . . And speaking of mothers, we need you
to do this, if not for yourself, then for your
abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your
Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you
to understand—especially in communities of
color, we need you to step up and help stop the
spread so that we can protect those who are most
vulnerable. (Aleem 2020)
This statement was uttered after Adams had hinted
at the social determinants of people of color’s
We do not think people of color are biologically
or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19.
There is nothing inherently wrong with you. But
they are socially predisposed to coronavirus . . .
and to have a higher incidence of the very diseases
that put you at risk for severe complications of
coronavirus. (Aleem 2020)
Although Adams, who is Black, began his comments by acknowledging that the disproportionate
mortality rates were because communities of color
experience the “burden of social ills,” by not elaborating on this point, his statement on culture
strengthened already existing racialized interpretations, given that this part of his commentary was the
one that played out in the news.7 Adams defended
his remarks when PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor pushed
back during the press conference. Dr. Fauci came
to Adams’s defense after Alcindor’s question:
“Jerome, you did it beautifully. You can’t do it any
better than that. I know Jerome personally. I can
just testify that he made no—not even a hint of
being offensive at all with that comment” (Concha
Fauci has been heralded for his straight talk during the pandemic, but on this matter his views are
as problematic as those of most Whites. He has not
advocated for a single policy to address health disparities, before, during, or for after the pandemic.
In contrast, experts on health disparities have urged
immediate interventions such as providing hazard
pay to workers, reopening the Obamacare exchange,
dropping Medicaid work requirements, and reversing plans to allow Medicaid spending caps to reduce
the mortality gap (Collins 2020).
Social scientists have addressed how the effects
of structural racism affect health disparities for communities of color. They have shown that segregated
communities of color endure high levels of pollution, joblessness, poverty, and crime and that their
inhabitants experience higher levels of stress. But
this “American Apartheid” is not natural or by
choice but the product of the racialized practices of
banks, realtors, individual Whites, and the government (Massey and Denton 1993). At the individual
level, the pivotal work of David R. Williams has
amply shown that people of color self-report higher
levels of exposure to discrimination and that this
affects their poor health outcomes (Williams and
Collins 1995). Yet as important as it is to assess the
health effects of discrimination at the individual
level, the most significant effects of racism are
structural and do not require intent. Gee and Ford
(2011) pointed to how segregation, immigration
policy, and legacies of racism have documented
effects on the health of people of color. In a more
recent review, Yearby (2018) showed how residents of segregated communities of color have less
access to healthy food, good hospitals, and playgrounds and are more exposed to pollution, noise,
overcrowd housing, and high rates of crime. The
combined effects of poverty, unemployment, and
the aforementioned factors, as well as interpersonal
discrimination, generate chronic racialized stress
among people of color, which correlates with poor
health outcomes (Goosby, Cheadle, and Mitchell
2018). To be clear, racial segregation and the concentration of poverty and joblessness in communities (the improperly labeled “neighborhood effects”)
are the product of “ghettoization and racism”
(Marable 1983).
It is important to explain how structural racism
affects the health of minority populations—especially in disasters such as the current one—because
the naturalization of health disparities appears in
many guises. For example, Louisiana senator Bill
Cassidy, who is also a doctor, claimed that,
I think if you control for diabetes and hypertension, a lot of racial difference would go away.
And I say that not to dismiss the problem of
health disparities. We have to focus on health
disparities, but we can’t get distracted by that
which is true, perhaps, but unrelated to the
problem at hand [italics added]. (Doubek 2020)
The “distraction” Senator Cassidy does not
want to address is how structural racism creates
these disparities. His call for “controlling for” is an
important statistical practice but one often used in
race research to obscure huge absolute disparities
(Bonilla-Silva and Baiocchi 2001). I must add that
in the case of health outcomes, class, whether measured by income, education, or occupation, does
not inoculate middle-class people of color from the
health effects of racism (Simons et al. 2015). By
not addressing the elephant in the room—why do
Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have high
rates of obesity, asthma, and hypertension?—statements such as Cassidy’s open the door for cultural
explanations of racial health disparities (i.e., “They
eat the wrong kinds of food, smoke too much, and
drink liquor all the time!”). For instance, in CNN’s
special “The Color of COVID,” the behavioral
explanation raised its ugly head. Former professional basketball player Charles Barkley said in the
program the following:
We as black people, we have to accept the fact
there is systematic racism. But that does not give
you a reason to go out and be overweight, have
diabetes. . . . We got to eat better, we need better
access to health care, we need better access to
being able to work out, and things like that. But
unless we get better health care which is part of
the system, unless we learn to work out better
and take better care of our bodies, we are always
going to be at a disadvantage. (Regan et al. 2020)
Although Barkley mentioned systemic racism in
connection to COVID-19 and claimed not to be
blaming poor Blacks, his narrative reinforced the
cultural framework to explain differential mortality. Similar to Barkley, Van Jones (2020), who
cohosted the show, had stated a week before the
program aired that he used his “social justice activism as an excuse to neglect [his] health” and asked
Blacks “to take more responsibility for [their] individual health choices.” People of color are dying
disproportionally from COVID-19, not because
they are Black, Brown, or Native American or
because they use drugs, smoke, eat bad food, and drink
more than Whites (Mack, Jones, and Ballesteros
2017). Rather, they are dying as a result of our
racialized social system (Bonilla-Silva 1997) and
its effects on their communities.
In this article I have discussed how several subjects
related to the effects of the pandemic are shaped by
the major frameworks of color-blind racism in a
way that prevents understanding how structural
racism affects people of color, both before and during
the COVID-19 pandemic. I have shown how these
discussions center our attention on individual-level
action, culture, or biology and away from the structural causes behind inequality as well as from the
need for collective action. Specifically, the three
subjects analyzed promote believing that workers
should work at all costs,8 that hunger can be solved
by the actions of good Samaritans, and that Black
and Brown people are dying at a higher rate than
Whites because of underlying health conditions
and problematic behaviors. Instead of addressing
the poor working conditions of essential workers
(particularly of workers of color), America’s limited welfare state, and systemic racism and its manifestations, the discussions we are having are
providing flowery rhetoric to make us feel good. A
“feeling good” story works precisely because we
are in the middle of a horrid pandemic that has
taken the lives of more than 100,000 people. It
works because Americans, perhaps more than most
people in the world, have been conditioned to both
“a rugged individualism” foundational myth and,
lately, to a self-help cultural logic (McLean and
Dixit 2018). And because the color-blind-shaped
issues I highlighted do their work mostly obliquely,
they fit almost perfectly the slippery nature of most
post–civil rights racial affairs (Bonilla-Silva
I limited my examination to three subject areas,
but the frameworks of color-blind racism are
extending their tentacles in all directions. Let me
offer briefly two more examples. First, as mentioned in the introduction, the refrain “We are all in
this together” has become part of the response to
the pandemic. USA Today, for instance, has had a
running column titled “Coronavirus: We’re in This
Together” (French 2020), accompanied by a unity
graphic, throughout the pandemic. They are not
alone, as most media outlets have an equivalent.
Fox News uses the more Trumpesque label
“America Together” (Fox News 2020).
Although during disasters “community resilience and unity, strengthening of social ties, selfhelp, heightened initiative, altruism, and prosocial
behavior more often prevail” (Auf der Heide
2004:341), it is pure fantasy that the pain and suffering are equally distributed across all segments of
the population. Vulnerable populations—old, rural,
poor, undocumented, or people of color—always
do worse during disasters and in their aftermaths.
The unity framing irons out the tremendous levels
of inequality in our nation and screens out concerns
about how class, race, gender, and other social divisions exacerbate the pandemic’s impacts. How can
we believe the pandemic is the “great equalizer”
given the huge mortality experienced by people of
color? If the “we are in this together” were not an
empty nationalist (Bratta 2009), color-blind slogan,
our future, as Forbes’s Lisa Fitzpatrick (2020)
admonished, would “include, plan for and protect
our most vulnerable too.”
My second example is how science is being presented as a neutral practice. Pfizer, for instance, has
a commercial (“Science will win”) in which the
narrator states this position in a straightforward
manner: “Science can overcome diseases, create
cures and yes, beat pandemics. It has before; it will
again” (Snyder Bulik 2020). This framing is pervasive, as the media and politicians of all stripes have
placed their faith in science as the vehicle to get us
out of the pandemic. The problem? The rationality
project of modernity was a highly racialized one
(Barnor 2007). The fact that science and scientists
are socially situated cannot be ignored even in the
middle of a pandemic. The history of science, particularly in the medical area, is plagued with racism
(Washington 2008). That history, unfortunately, is
still with us as even in this postgenomic moment,
race is being reinscribed (Duster 2015; Roberts
2011). I already mentioned problems with Drs.
Fauci’s and Adams’s stand on health disparities,
and Dr. Birx has shown her political partisanship,
as she did not rebuke Trump’s statements on
hydroxychloroquine or his comments on injecting
disinfectant as potential cures for the virus—she
blamed the media for continuing to talk about these
matters rather than moving on (O’Brien 2020). To
be clear, I am not antiscience; rather, I advocate a
critical engagement with science to address “how
power relations of race, class, gender, and imperialism have already shaped the sciences and technologies we have” (Harding 2008:92). Such a stance
might help produce a more democratic and inclusive science field (Berg and Lidskog 2018) and
limit the likelihood of repeating racialized medicine during this epidemic. However, we already
have had two French doctors suggesting testing a
potential vaccine in Africa because “there are no
masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit
like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where
among prostitutes, we try things, because we know
that they are highly exposed and don’t protect
themselves” (Rosman 2020).
Nevertheless, as toxic as the color-blind framing of all these issues is, the multidimensional crisis we are living has opened the largest space in
recent history to make demands and frame matters
differently.9 The murder of George Floyd by the
Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, has propelled
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 00(0)
massive, multiracial mobilizations across the
nation and, indeed, the world. The notion of systemic racism, which surveys consistently showed
was alien to Whites, has gained currency and is
propelling discussions and analyses that were not
possible before. Although the “public square” is
still controlled by corporations (Lutz 2012), the
movement has cracked everything giving voice to
the ideas, aspirations, and hopes of the racial subaltern. Social protest is advancing alternative perspectives (not just on policing) as their actions are
deemed “newsworthy” (Tierney et al. 2006). In
fact, the same media that have been pushing the
color-blind framing of the subjects I discuss here
are now frantically producing critical stories on
race issues in America. These stories have increased
exponentially, allowing the public to seriously consider the viability of universal health care, expanded
welfare benefits, higher wages, better working conditions, prison reform, defunding the police, and
many other policy options that were not in play just
a few months ago (Baradaran 2020).
The structural interpretations of race-class
issues in the nation seem to be getting a hold of the
masses, but at this point it is unclear if Whites realize the implications of the arguments. Do the White
masses truly understand the concept of “systemic
racism”? Do Whites appreciate that if people of
color experience systemic disadvantages, they
experience systemic advantages? And what are
Whites doing, particularly those who proclaim to
be “liberal,” to uproot their “deep whiteness”
(Bonilla-Silva 2015a)? Are White protestors
changing their White networks of friends and pondering about their White neighborhoods and
churches, or are they returning to their segregated
lives every night? We had a race rebellion in the
1960s, and once the protest moment ended, the idealistic Whites who had participated in it quickly
morphed into the color-blind racists of today
(Caditz 1976). For Whites to change their mental
and emotional racial map, they must adopt a “feeling of equality” stand (Bonilla-Silva 2019b), and
social protest will be key in this process (Piven and
Cloward 1977). But the fire this time must be
accompanied by a relentless, thorough effort to reimagine every aspect of our racialized world. If we
seize the moment, then we will no longer have to
proclaim something as simple as “Black Lives
Matter.” Will we become Martin Luther King Jr.’s
beloved community, or will the raisin need to continue exploding? Stay tuned, as this time, the revolution will definitely be televised.
I thank the three anonymous reviewers for their tough and
incisive comments. I did not like or agree with some of
their comments, but at the end of the day, their suggestions made the article better. I also thank a friend who
read various incarnations of the article and Professor
Mary Hovsepian, who helped me address the reviewers’
Andrew Cuomo’s Twitter, accessed April 15, 2020,
at https://twitter.com/nygovcuomo/status/12450213
For a similar methodological strategy, see BonillaSilva (2012).
Estimates of the rate of underemployment place it
at about 100 percent of the general unemployment
rate since 1994. But that rate is racially stratified,
as Latinos have experienced a rate that has been
about 80 percent higher than that among Whites
and Blacks at 100 percent. If the unemployment
rate today is 16 percent to 18 percent, then it is safe
to extrapolate that more than 30 percent of workers of color are food insecure (Nunn, Parsons, and
Shambaugh 2019).
Latinos are twice as likely as Whites to live in
households without vehicles (12.0 percent vs. 6.5
percent), and Blacks are 3 times as likely (19.7 percent) (National Equity Atlas 2020). Thus, depending on food banks to distribute food may not help
equally all households in need of food. On this, as
with many other policies, what is needed are “targeted universal” polices so that all in need benefit
from the policy. To be equitable, the policy should
be calibrated by need (those who need more should
get more) (Powell, Menendian, and Ake 2019).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (2020) gives
out about half a billion dollars of the food distributed by food banks. However, this amount is less
than 10 percent of the total amount of food distributed and needed by banks (Bouek 2010), the food
the Department of Agriculture purchases benefits
large companies at the expense of programs such
as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(Charles 2020), and the investment pales in comparison with the government’s corporate welfare,
which usually supersedes social welfare by about
50 percent (Reich 2019).
States and the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention are not reporting Native American
mortality due to COVID-19, and reports suggest
that Native Americans’ mortality rate is among the
highest in the nation (Nagle 2020). The “health
preconditions” of Native Americans living on reservations (about a quarter of Native Americans) are
worse than those of any other group in America.
This situation, combined with overcrowding, lack
of sanitation, and extreme poverty, will likely lead
to a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic, when
nations such as the Navajo experienced a 12 percent
mortality rate (Brady and Bahr 2014).
A Google search on the media follow-up to
Adams’s comment revealed that neither critics such as CNN’s Bakari Sellers, Essence, and
Congresswoman Maxine Waters nor supporters
such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post,
and John McWhorter stressed Adams’s comment on
the “burden of social ills.”
One of the most egregious cases is meatpacking
plants, where workers have been for a long time
dealing with line speed, high illness rates and injuries, and inadequate health units in factories, as a
2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office study
found (cited in Bagenstose, Chadde, and Wynn
2020). And facing high rates of infection and deaths
in these plants, the government’s response has been
inadequate. Factory workers, unions, and even managers say the federal government—including the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration—
has done little more than issue nonenforceable guidance. On its Web site, for example, the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention has released safety
guidelines for critical workers and businesses,
which primarily promote common-sense measures
of sanitization and personal distancing (Bagenstose
et al. 2020).
I began work on this article before the race rebellion
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Author Biography
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a professor of sociology at
Duke University. He is currently working on a project to
explain why people in Latin America do not see overt racist depictions (e.g., actors in blackface, racist cartoons)
and even racist commentary as problematic.

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