Exposing Cruelty: The Pandemic at the Intersection of Biopolitics and Racial Capitalism

by Critical Asia

by Lok Siu, Dec. 2020】

Comedian Trevor Noah noted on June 25, 2020 that “It appears America isn’t just dealing with a deadly strain of coronavirus. It’s also dealing with a deadly strain of stupidity.”[1] He was referring to an incident that involved a group of Florida residents who, at a commissioner’s meeting, questioned health experts’ credentials and cited conspiracy theories that masks were “literally killing people.” Noah is not alone in thinking this. A cursory search on google using the combined words, “American, stupid, 2020” yielded over 280 million results. Mostly, they are op-ed articles written by people both in- and out-side of the United States reflecting on American responses to the pandemic. News article titles include: “The Era of Stupid,”[2] “Americans Want to Be Free to Be Stupid,”[3] “Are Americans Just Stupid?”[4] and “The Year of Stupid.”[5] Yes, this is indeed an embarrassing time to be an American.

All this stupidity would be funnier if the consequences weren’t so cruel. Recall, for instance, in May 2020 when a Family Dollar Store security guard in Flint, Michigan was shot and murdered for trying to enforce the state-mandated face mask requirement.[6] More recently, in October 2020, an 80-year-old man died when he was shoved to the ground by a fellow bar patron who refused to put on a mask.[7] These are not simple acts of stupidity but acts motivated by the intent to harm, even kill. On a broader scale, more than 210,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and 7.23 million Americans have been infected with it (as of 9/30/20). The U.S. population makes up about 4.25% of the total world population, yet U.S. cases and deaths comprise about one-fifth of the world’s total number of coronavirus cases (33.8 million) and coronavirus-related deaths (1 million). Nine months into the pandemic, the U.S.—an economic superpower—is nowhere near containing the spread of the pandemic. And despite the President and his close advisors being infected by the virus, there is still widespread denial of its danger and continued refusal to wear a mask.

The online Oxford Languages website defines stupidity as behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment. Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities Steven Nadler offers a more philosophical definition: “Stupidity is a kind of intellectual stubbornness. A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face, but it makes no difference whatsoever. They believe what they want to believe [my emphasis].”[8] In other words, no amount of evidence or prolonged debate can change anyone’s mind. Addressing stupidity is futile.

So, forget stupidity. What we need to call out is the cruelty, the systemic cruelty that is present in every level of society and that has been accentuated, amplified, and made explicit in its most naked and raw form under the Trump Administration. Perhaps New York Times Opinion Columnist Charles Blow said it best: “It’s the Cruelty, Stupid” that is the most haunting revelation of our time.[9] What the pandemic has laid bare in the United States are the invisibilized and trivialized forms of cruel subjection along class, race, gender, and age, among others, that has long plagued our society. Indeed, the speed with which the coronavirus spread across the population, along with its devastating effects represented in daily death counts, brings into sharp focus the combined workings of biopolitics and racial capitalism that co-constitute the process of “who to make live and let die”: who, in the idiom of governmentality, to disavowal and make into bare life and who, in the idiom of capitalism, to make exploitable and disposable. What undergirds both is the widespread tolerance for cruelty exercised against particular categories of people, a cruelty that is continually reproduced in order to become naturalized. In the context of a broadly mediated, compressed period of about seven months (March to September), the public at large has witnessed in real time the cruelty that makes possible the conditions of re/producing what Agamben has called “bare life,” life without rights and protection and therefore made vulnerable to death and killing by anyone (or anything)[10].  

Cruelty operates and is perpetuated in everyday life, through persistent reiterative individual acts and institutional practices that come to normalize cruelty. Its normalization desensitizes and makes acceptable the production of bare life. Take for example, the sudden uptick of anti-Asian violence in Western settler colonial nations. With U.S. President Trump taking the lead in flippantly calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” and later “the Kung Flu” and blaming “the Chinese” for unleashing the pandemic, thousands of Chinese living in diaspora became subjected to various forms of street-level aggression that ranged from verbal abuse to intimidation to physical assault. According to the Human Rights Watch, an Asian woman in Brooklyn, NY suffered a racially-motivated acid-attack, and in Texas, a Burmese American man and his two children were stabbed by a man who claimed he thought the family was “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus”[11]. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council in the U.S. reported over 1,000 cases of anti-Asian incidents in a two week period in March 2020.[12] Outside the U.S., a Singaporean student in the UK was violently kicked and punched by an angry group of men after they uttered, “we don’t want your coronavirus in our country” (my emphasis).[13] Angry statements like “Go back to where you came from” and “we don’t want you here” made against East Asian presenting people were documented by videos that went viral in the internet. Even nurses and doctors of Asian descent, who risk their lives to save those infected, were told the same by the very patients they were treating. If it weren’t so cruel and absurd, I would find it ironic, ironically stupid.

While Mr. Trump insists on the innocence of his utterance, perhaps something akin to an inside joke, the cruel intent (which he does not recognize) is to belittle “the Chinese,” to harden the line between “us” versus “them,” and to exert a semblance of dominance and control over the situation. Although his words may not appear to incite violence, they aim to denigrate and diminish the value of this group, to subordinate and make them less human, and through that process of devaluation—political and otherwise, they create subjects of bare life. What is particularly frightening is not so much that Trump would utter these musings but rather how easily and quickly people seized this moment to exercise pedestrian forms of anti-Asian aggression. Their cruelty was so easily activated to intimidate and cause harm on Asian bodies that it raises questions about ingrained perceptions of the status of Asian Americans/diasporic Asians within the nation-state. The recent rise in anti-Asian aggression makes visible the political vulnerability and precarity of Asian Americans/diasporic Asians as rightful belongers and citizens. I should note that while the uptick in everyday forms of anti-Asian aggression has been sudden and dramatic, the televised police murder of George Floyd reminds us of the longstanding, persistent, and intensive acts of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence. These different manifestations of violence point to the variegated methods of inclusive exclusion and the perpetuation of bare life in its multiple forms.

Cruelty is also built into what Cedric J. Robinson coined the “racial capitalist system,” in which capital accumulation is produced through relations of inequality among racially differentiated human labor.[14] The pandemic made clear how sustained socio-economic inequalities have contributed to the disproportionate effects on Black, indigenous, and Latinx life in the United States. Although the statistics is incomplete and still being compiled, what is uncontestable is that Blacks, who comprise only 13.4% of the total population, represent 21% of the coronavirus-related deaths. Researchers have shown correlations between the health disparities of Black Americans—for instance, the high occurrence of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity—and their sustained lack of access to health care and healthy foods, as well as increased levels of stress that come with economic precarity. So, even before the pandemic hit, these longstanding biopolitical outcomes of structural inequality already make Black lives particularly vulnerable, but when put in a pandemic situation and viewed through the lens of racial capitalism, they fare far worse.

What compounds the vulnerability of Blacks and people of color, more generally, is their overrepresentation as “frontline” workers, a subcategory of essential workers where a large majority of workers cannot feasibly work from home.[15] According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “people of color are overrepresented in many occupations within frontline industries,”[16] which include health support workers, essential sales and related areas, and blue-collar categories, such as transportation and materials moving occupations. As frontline workers, they do not have the option of working from home and are often in close proximity to customers and co-workers. The very nature of frontline work—which includes work in hospitals, retail and grocery stores, warehouses, and public transportation, to name just a few—exposes them to a higher risk of contracting the virus. Moreover, frontline workers, with the exception of physicians, pharmacist, and—to a lesser extent—registered nurses, tend to earn lower wages on average compared to all U.S. workers, and some of the largest occupations tend to be the lowest-paid, such as personal care aides, cashiers, and janitors and cleaners.[17] The pandemic exposed the severe income disparities of racialized workers who continue to provide society’s most essential services while baring the highest health risk and getting paid the lowest wages. If anything, this illustrates the naked cruelty of the racial capitalist system at work, revealing the logics of disposability, exploitability, and the differential valuation of human labor and life.

What the pandemic has unmasked is the cruelty (hidden behind stupidity) that continues to persist in everyday social life and that undergirds the political-economic system of the United States. More importantly, given the high stakes involved and the indiscriminate threat of exposure, the pandemic has heightened awareness around the intersecting roles of biopolitics and racial capitalism in re/producing both the conditions of inclusive exclusion and the differential valuation of human life that determines the spectrum of vulnerability among those to make live and those to let die.

Lok Siu, University of California, Berkeley, USA


[1] https://deadline.com/2020/06/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-examines-deadly-strain-of-stupidity-1202970531/

[2] https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/05/16/opinion/era-stupid/

[3] https://www.ft.com/content/95b9ee10-11be-4530-beb3-42b3ea7b5db0

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-humanity-naturally/202010/are-americans-just-stupid

[5] https://outline.com/XEFxzJ

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/08/us/coronavirus-masks-dollar-store-shooting-flint-Michigan.html

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/nyregion/face-mask-criminally-negligent-homicide.html

[8] https://time.com/4937675/how-to-fix-american-stupidity/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/trump-human-rights.html

[10] Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press.

[11] Seashia Vang, “U.S. Government Should Better Combat Anti-Asian Racism,” Human Rights Watch, April 17, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/17/us-government-should-better-combat-anti-asian-racism.

[12] Vang, “US Government.”; Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Asian Americans Report Over 650 Racist Acts Over Last Week, New Data Says,” NBC, March 26, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-americans-report-nearly-500-racist-acts-over-last-week-n1169821

[13] Suyin Haynes, “As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism,” Time, March 6, 2020. https://time.com/5797836/coronavirus-racism-stereotypes-attacks/

[14] Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press.

[15] https://econofact.org/essential-and-frontline-workers-in-the-covid-19-crisis#:~:text=We%20find%20that%20the%20broader,a%20higher%20representation%20of%20minorities.

[16] https://cepr.net/a-basic-demographic-profile-of-workers-in-frontline-industries/

[17] https://www.brookings.edu/research/to-protect-frontline-workers-during-and-after-covid-19-we-must-define-who-they-are/

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