White conservatives like Rush Limbaugh believe white privilege doesn't exist. But the coronavirus pandemic shows the painful divide between white and black Americans.

White conservatives like Rush Limbaugh believe white privilege doesn't exist. But the coronavirus pandemic shows the painful divide between white and black Americans.
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White conservatives like Rush Limbaugh believe white privilege doesn't exist. But the coronavirus pandemic shows the painful divide between white and black Americans.
A doctor from SOMOS Community Care prepares to test a patient at a drive-thru testing center for COVID-19 at Lehman College on March 28, 2020 in the Bronx, New York City.Getty Images/John Moore

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • He writes that many conservatives don't understand — or refuse to consider — the invisible systems that uphold some citizens at the expense of others.
  • Instead, they may rely on an ideology of personal responsibility — when a bad thing happens to someone it's solely their fault, and good things that happen to you are due solely to your hard work.
  • But the existence of white privilege can be seen in how coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
  • Coronavirus is not a racist disease, but our society is racist — and that increases the risk of infection.

Early this week, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh visited popular progressive radio show The Breakfast Club to discuss the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.

"I don't buy into the notion of white privilege," Limbaugh said. After a second of stunned silence, Breakfast Club co-host Charlamagne tha God told Limbaugh he was "being delusional."

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In response, Limbaugh doubled down, calling white privilege "a liberal, political construct ... designed to intimidate and get people to shut up and admit they're guilty of doing things they haven't done." Limbaugh then offered instances in his own life when he felt unjustly targeted with bad behavior — being fired, having his car keyed — as evidence that he was a victim and not a perpetrator of discrimination.

Many conservatives buy into the same fantasy that Limbaugh pushed in his Breakfast Club conversation: they don't understand and refuse to consider that societies are made up of dozens of invisible systems that protect and support some citizens at the expense of others. When your ideology centers itself around personal responsibility, issues like racism, sexism, and economic inequality simply disappear. It's a blissfully simple life philosophy: bad things that happen to you are your own fault, while good things that happen to me are achieved through hard work and clean living.


Of course, it's simply not true. It's incredibly easy to prove the existence of white privilege: look no further than the impact of coronavirus on Americans and you'll see a clear delineation between white and Black Americans — one that favors the former at the expense of the latter.

In the Seattle metro area, Lewis Kamb of the Seattle Times reports, people of Hispanic, Black, and Pacific Islander descent are being "infected and hospitalized [with coronavirus] at significantly higher rates" than white Seattleites.

"Some likely causes include unequal access to diagnostic testing, fear among immigrants and refugees to seek medical treatment, and the fact that people of color are statistically more likely to work service-oriented jobs that leave them more vulnerable to virus exposure," Kamb writes. Additionally, the CDC finds that Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured than white Americans, and that they're in occupations that place them at higher risk of infection: "Black or African Americans make up 12% of all employed workers, but account for 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses."

In fact, the APM Research Lab finds that Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to die of coronavirus than white Americans. "Across the country, African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans," writes Ed Pilkington at the Guardian.

Let's be clear: there are no natural, biological reasons why Black people should be getting sick with and dying of coronavirus more than white people. That means the difference is sociological. For our purposes, that difference can be measured economically. A typical white American family has ten times the wealth of a typical black family, and that yawning gap creates a tremendous number of differences. Your wealth — or lack thereof — affects where you live, what you eat, where you work, and basically every other environmental factor. And your environment is one of the biggest factors in your health, which is why diabetes and asthma rates are so much higher in Black people than in white people. Both of those conditions make people much more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.


And then when those elevated levels of infections run up against the American medical system's racial bias against Black Americans, as described by Marya T. Mtshali at Vox.com, the increased fatality numbers start to make sense. Black people are less likely to have access to medical care in the United States, and their complaints are less likely to be taken seriously when they actually do get medical attention.

So to sum it up: coronavirus is not a racist disease — it doesn't discriminate against skin color or economic status. But the society in which we live is racist, and that racism absolutely does increase risk of COVID-19 infection and resulting health outcomes based on skin color. Not only is Limbaugh less likely to get coronavirus than a Black man of the same age, he's also much more likely to get better treatment if he does get infected.

But all of that is to explain the divide in how coronavirus is impacting white and Black Americans. To explain white privilege, we have to look at one more recent story — a haunting Washington Post piece about the reopening of Georgia's economy after the coronavirus shutdown. Reporter Stephanie McCrummen interviewed a man named Scott Friedel who explained why he was hanging out at an outdoor mall and socializing in the middle of a pandemic.

"When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I'm not worried," Friedel explained.

To drink beer on the lawn of a shopping center and listen to live music in the middle of a pandemic while less economically advantaged people — very likely people of color — wait on you? And to not worry about the consequences of your actions because they're likely to affect others but unlikely to affect you and people like you?


That's white privilege.