THE PRIVILEGED PATH
PARTING WAYS WITH THE ORTHODOXY OF PRIVILEGE
It is hard to figure out how anything as important as access to COVID-19 vaccines could be left to chance and uncertainty. Welcome to America’s vaccine rollout, where privilege only works some of the time. And some of the privileged just can’t seem to get it to work for them like it almost always has. Very frustrating.
Equity, in the sense of fairness and impartiality, has never been an American strength. Rather, the nation’s history glorifies those who grab what they can get, even when what they can get is at the expense of others. “Success” itself is prized above a fair and impartial process for achieving it that has equality of opportunity at its core. While there is nothing new about this observation, its application to both the COVID-19 vaccine distribution issues and the more general drive to confront societal inequities that the coronavirus pandemic has dramatized is worthy of discussion.
After failing at every turn to create a national urgency to adopt and implement recognizable public health measures to address the pandemic, and amid a dizzying array of inadequate state and local solutions, it became apparent that most Americans were in it for themselves. This provides the oxygen on which privilege thrives. So, for many, making individual decisions has been freed from any collective moral imperative. The Biden administration, with quiet competence, is trying to use a new national response to the pandemic as a foundation for altering this key impediment to a more equitable society.
People with resources, a good job, a good computer, and good internet access have thrived, while many “essential” workers were left to fend for themselves. The privileged know that “essential” was often just shorthand for interchangeable people required to put themselves at risk, frequently for low pay and no benefits. Humanity wasn’t a big consideration. Worse yet, the privileged didn’t seem too troubled to know that these “essential” workers frequently headed home to a crowded apartment or multi-generational substandard housing, increased health risks and limited access to meaningful healthcare. The joke was clearly on them.
Those for whom testing and contact tracing would have been paths to some measure of health security seemed less likely to have access to either, while some of those wanting to take a break in Mexico or Disneyland easily found a test and cleverly avoided the rigors of contact tracing. So the beat goes on. But to what end?
While there will be a day when masks, social distancing, testing and maybe even COVID-19 vaccines will no longer be a part of daily life for most of us, it is not clear at all that any real lessons will have been learned about how best to engender the collective will necessary to meet critical national societal needs. There are three threads that seem to be coalescing to ensure that a return to “normal” is a return to a stratified society where the privileged almost always win and the underprivileged most often lose.
First, there is the power of “normal” itself. The people with the most influence want a return to their normal while those with the least influence generally want something better than a return to their normal. This is understandable, but guess which team is going to win unless good government and good people step in to level the playing field.
Second, to successfully confront inequity, it is essential to understand the impact of inequity and the value that it brings to privilege and the impediments that it brings to those without privilege. Then, those with privilege have to be willing to part with some of it. (Not necessarily a zero-sum game). For this to occur at the systemic and institutional levels required for enduring change, some awakening will have to occur. There is a small possibility that when some of those with privilege lose anyway, as with the vaccine distribution, it may engender a deeper empathy for those who seem to lose all the time.
Finally, there is the morally bankrupt Republican Party and its shameful indifference to the suffering of even those who still seem to believe there is something there to admire. The Biden administration, Democrats in Congress, and progressives everywhere have gone big and actually gotten important things legislatively accomplished to meet the current pandemic crisis. But that effort demonstrated how tenuous a hold any effort to make America better for all actually has on the nation’s essential legislative process. With all that we have gone through as a nation in the last year, you would think that maybe some moral light would have been lit in some recesses where it had not previously penetrated, yet I don’t see much evidence of that.
For now, President Biden’s American Rescue Plan has been signed into law providing the legislative framework and funding for the critical elements of a national plan to confront the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. And, perhaps even more significant for the future of the nation, Biden and Congressional Democrats have given legislative gravitas to a progressive and activist agenda for confronting economic and social inequality in America. This is a big deal.*
As with every advance in a deeply divided nation, there will be pushback from those who have for decades cratered meaningful attempts at progressive social and economic legislation. Even the obvious inequities driven by pernicious systems and exposed in big bright lights by the pandemic haven’t broken the stranglehold that the pushback machine has on large segments of public thinking.
In this context, the national response to every drive for racial justice in America’s history is instructive as progressives strive to use the lessons of the pandemic to inform a full and appropriate response to it and to the underlying inequities that helped fuel America’s pandemic response failures. Every time that racism boils its way to the surface, it readily becomes apparent that it is the systemic racism deniers in our midst who rally together to ensure that systemic change is avoided.
Think of it in these terms, America wallowed in pandemic response failure not because some idiot didn’t wear a mask, but because coronavirus deniers stood in the way of a collective public health response. To alter this formula, Americans have to be separated from the cherished notion that they are all good people at heart. While it is undeniable that there are many good and decent Americans working every day to serve others at some risk to themselves, it is also shockingly obvious how easy it is for individuals to separate themselves from the common good.
Unexamined privilege is the vehicle that often allows those who separate themselves from the common good to somehow feel good about themselves. Until this dynamic is changed, it will be hard to see how America can change for the better.