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Coronavirus is the ultimate demonstration of the real-world impact of racism

I have published an article in The Guardian in which I discuss the ways in which the media’s treatment of racism as a topic for debate has allowed eugenics in through the back door as just another talking point on the ‘marketplace of ideas’. Unfortunately, the article contains a mistake. I do not agree that it is unhelpful to say that those who are anxious about immigration are racist. In fact, I spend a large portion of my book, Why Race Still Matters showing how the argument that talking about racism is unhelpful is a dangerous one that leads to the failure to talk racism seriously.

Here is the article I originally submitted to The Guardian.

As the Coronavirus continues to run rampage across the globe, it has become apparent that, while the virus itself may not discriminate, race and class-based injustices are being more rapidly entrenched. As Omar Khan writes, BAME Covid-19 deaths ‘track existing social determinants of health.’ And racialised people are also targeted by ramped up policing accompanying the enforcement of lock-down measures. Data from New South Wales in Australia reveals that, although the richer, whiter Sydney beach suburbs have the majority of Covid-19 infections, it is in the neighbourhoods with larger numbers of people of migrant origin that people have receive the most fines for breaching social distancing directives.

Despite this and the growing number of violent attacks against Chinese people, the reaction to the link between race and the Coronavirus is still met with surprise. As I write in my new book, Why Race Still Matters—out this month—we have been conditioned to believe that ‘making it about race’ unnecessarily sensationalises an issue. The declaration of societies as ‘postrace’ over the last two decades led to racism becoming a question of opinion and a matter for debate. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were flashpoints in what I call ‘not racism’, a form of discursive racist violence that denies the role played by race in social, political and economic life and suggests that people who face racism are less able to define it than those who paint themselves as more objective because not directly concerned. Not racism has been a major feature of Islamophobia, for example, where repeating that ‘Islam is not a race’ is often a cover for a virulent anti-Muslim politics.

Despite the rise of white supremacist extremism, as seen in Christchurch last year when an Australian terrorist murdered 51 Muslim people, and the misery wrought by the border regimes of the Global North, racism’s existence continues to be called into question. For example, after Christchurch, the editor of The American Conservative Rod Dreher wrote that the perpetrator’s manifesto was grounded in ‘realistic concerns’ about ‘declining numbers of ethnic Europeans.’

A group of UK academics and political commentators promote a ‘both sides’ approach to racism arguing against what they see as an unhelpful moralism around issues of race and migration that silences the concerns of the working class, which they portray as uniquely white. In 2019, they organised a panel discussion on ‘Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?’ In response to an open letter against the event signed by over 230 academics, two of the organisers, Eric Kaufmann and Matthew Goodwin, wrote that ‘large numbers of people across Western democracies do feel under threat from immigration and rising ethnic diversity. There is no point shying away from it.’ Labelling those concerned about immigration ‘racists’ is unhelpful. But to whom it is unhelpful remains unspoken. These commentators present themselves as rational versus antiracists who, by seeing race everywhere, irrationally demonise everyone with ‘concerns’ about migrants, Muslims or Black people, the same people who are now dying disproportionately of Covid-19.

The reason we need to be particularly concerned about this is that, the same mindset that saw racism being debated everywhere, as a mere matter of opinion, often with representatives of extreme right groups given a platform by national broadcasters, has also enabled a return of eugenicist thinking. This gives us the dangerous idea that Covid-19 must be allowed ‘run through’ the population, to develop fictional ‘herd immunity’, to protect the economy. Under the guise of ‘viewpoint diversity’, arguments, such as that put by assistant professor of philosophy, Jonathan Anomaly, in the Monash Bioethics Review, for ‘liberal eugenics’ are openly aired.

The benignly termed ‘race realism’ is defended by a growing circle of pundits who argue for the spurious claims of behavioural genetics and differential IQ dividing the middle class from the poor; whites and Asian from Black people. A gathering circle for this openness to eugenics is the online magazine Quillette, the publication of choice for academics such as Kaufmann and Goodwin many of whose articles obsess about the excesses of racism-speak. Quillette also serves as a home for the defence of Noah Carl, the postdoctoral researcher forced to leave his position at Cambridge after his research on ‘positive eugenics’ came to light. Carl had spoken at a conference on race and intelligence that had been held secretly at University College London. Nevertheless, Carl has been defended by academics such as Kaufmann who claim that it is antiracists who violently suppress the free-flow of ideas which should be openly aired in the spirit of ‘viewpoint diversity’. Even eugenics is presented as ‘just another idea’ on the ‘marketplace of ideas’. It is thus unsurprising that Quillette currentlyhosts articles with titles such as ‘Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter?’ that concludes, ‘the fact is our culture is obsessed with race’.

British associate editor of Quillette magazine, Toby Young epitomises the worrying nexus between viewpoint diversity advocacy, eugenics cheerleading and now Coronavirus scepticism. Another attendee at the ‘secret’ conference on eugenics at UCL in 2017, Young has advocated for genetically engineered intelligence to be offered ‘to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs.’ At the end of February, he launched a Free Speech Union, ‘to counter Twitter mobs that drown out opinions they dislike’. He has now started Lockdown Sceptics, a website opposing measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 by staying home. It publishes links to articles by other sceptics whose past output has the common thread of opposing antiracism in the name of ‘free speech’.

Given the fact that racial inequality is expressed in Covid-19 deaths as it is in all other dimensions of life, the growing calls to relax social distancing measures across the Global North further signals society’s disregard for the lives of racialised people. The ground for these arguments to be found acceptable was laid by the openness to eugenics as a point of debate. This was made possible by the treatment of racism as a matter of opinion with white racists given carte blanche to vilify migrants and Muslims, double down on antiblackness and anti-Roma racism, and ramp up antisemitism in the interests of media ‘balance’.

We should not have to have waited for this, but the Coronavirus crisis reveals that turning racism into a matter for debate has a real human cost, measured in the loss of life. To continue to treat the value of some lives over others as a matter for debate is a choice. Coronavirus should ensure that eugenics has no place in any legitimate public discussion.





Alana Lentin