It is no accident that the movement against police murders of black people has been taking place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Or that months of ostensibly being “all in it together” should lead to the greatest uprising against racism in American history. But what exactly is the connection between this anti-racist wave and the months of fear, loss, sheltering in place, unaccustomed dependency, heroic effort, gratitude, unemployment, financial devastation, and sharpening inequality?
An unexpected sense of community appeared immediately at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The sentiment that “We’re all in this together” was repeated endlessly and everywhere – in songs, slogans, announcements and conversation, on the internet, television, billboards and lawn signs. A number of celebrities adopted the phrase in public service announcements expressing solidarity with essential workers and others laid off because of the pandemic.
The pandemic, and now the police murder of George Floyd and the uprising that has followed, reveal the ways we are not in it together, but no less do these months and days also underscore the ways in which we are. The contradictions have sharpened in 2020. For one thing, throughout the months of the pandemic, black and brown Americans and immigrants have been themselves living the contradiction of being overwhelmingly the essential workers everyone depends on while being overwhelmingly the main victims of the disease. But paradoxically, “Black Lives Matter,” once voiced by a militant minority, is now everyone’s slogan, broadcast together by blacks, whites, Latinx, and Asian-Americans as a wider human community. This community is obvious in the mixed racial composition of the demonstrations, including many in which a majority or even all of the participants are white, and in the remarkable sight of police and National Guard troops taking a knee with them.
Given its reach, its depth and energy, it is not far-fetched to anticipate that this enormous movement will be setting its sights not only on a reversal of hitherto intractable American issues – of course, whites policing blacks, but also racial inequality itself. There is something in it that whites want as well as African Americans and other minorities. As it unfolds, our several months spent living uneasily under the rubric of all of us being “in it together” is playing a significant role in how whites and African Americans are thinking about each other today. American society has gone from the public health reality of coping with the pandemic, to the survival realities of hospital care and sheltering in place, and the economic reality of living under the recession willfully caused by those controlling the American economy rather than keeping workers employed. All classes and races in America have experienced the fellow feeling generated by struggling against the coronavirus even as we have had to face the glaring inequalities that it has brought to light.
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The social divisions expressed in Floyd’s murder and the uprising that followed do not change the obvious biological fact that we are all in it together. And, however unequally, the virus continues to spread among us. Everyone now knows the story about the novel coronavirus: at some point it “crossed over” from wildlife, possibly bats, to humans, probably in China; it spreads wantonly unless we keep far enough away from each other, wear a mask, or keep it from our hands with sanitizer or soap; it will continue to spread until one of two distant events when we will have achieved “herd immunity,” or a vaccine is created, tested, manufactured and distributed widely.
So we are all in it together epidemiologically. To that extent we threaten and are threatened by each other, and so we need each other to reduce the spread of the virus. We have been told to practice social distancing to protect ourselves, to protect each other, and to protect the entire society. All this is obvious. And odd: most of us have stayed home and kept our distance, we wear masks and expect others to do the same, and at the same time all of this is an important social act. Inverting Adam Smith’s invisible hand, all of us acting individually make it more difficult for the virus to spread and so we accomplish the most vital collective goal. On this survival level we are all in it together as biological beings and simultaneously as social beings occupying the same living space.
One effect of this stark awareness that anyone can infect anyone else at any time is a remarkable sociability. Avoiding others and wearing a mask demonstrates a connection with others doing the same. Random people on the street call out “Hello” and even “Thank you” as they give each other a wide berth. “Hello” obviously means that we are recognizing each other as part of our community, “Thank you” shows gratitude that we are taking care to protect them from ourselves.
It is the equivalent of the “Do your part” intoned by public health and political leaders at endless briefings. They are spokespersons of a collective public health project: “Flatten the curve” to keep sufficient hospital beds available for everyone who needs them, and to bring the R rate below 1, meaning that the spread of infection is being brought under control. How? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at first kept New York City from being shut down during a decisive week in March, leading to perhaps fifteen thousand more deaths than estimated if social distancing had been started earlier. Then he began to play a role as national tribune as President Trump’s blatant self-interest and incompetence to deal with the crisis became obvious, pointing out again and again that only through the practice of social distancing and sheltering at home did the pandemic pass its peak and begin to let up. At that point he announced: “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus.” Cuomo insisted correctly that ordinary people had to make thousands and millions of individual decisions to follow the recommendations and to act appropriately. A kind of we emerged in this consensus, a sharing beyond class and race, beyond self-interest, an awareness of interconnectedness and community.
“We’re all in this together” has a second irrefutable meaning. In a day-to-day way we depend on each other for survival. Beyond all the ways in which we only become who we are through being raised as social beings – language, attitudes, values, expectations, our sense of reality itself – the infinite variety of normal social interdependencies that enable us to survive have become sharply focused. Many of us have sheltered at home, many provide essential services to those who do. It is a life-and-death matter on two fronts. First, in response to the disease, millions of health-workers provide life-saving and life-preserving medical care directly. Second, we die if we do not eat, and the food must be grown, harvested, packaged, shipped, and made available to us. So the list of our “heroes” necessarily includes all those workers whose contributions suddenly seem newly urgent, starting with medical and hospital staff and members of the network supplying our food. But as people have opened their eyes to see these primary links of their social being, it becomes clearer and clearer how long the full list really is. Throughout the society there has been an expanding awareness of the enormous number of black and brown essential workers, including, for example, delivery workers, post office employees, garbage collectors, and bus drivers, as well as all others who provide vital services and do so at risk to themselves. Accordingly there has developed a clearer-than-ever understanding that admits all of these to the ranks of frontliners everyone counts on for survival.
So a sentiment of gratitude leaping over ordinary class and race lines has spread since very early on in the pandemic. The feel-good rhetoric has been a way of acknowledging this, sometimes in the tone of yogic platitudes, sometimes in concrete civic appreciation. It blossomed into apartment-window serenades for essential workers all over the world, websites raising funds for them, “Thank you” ads, lawn signs, and billboards, as well as gifts and food, local and national projects to find and donate masks and other PPE. Cuomo’s daily briefings regularly called attention to the “heroes” and Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer, proposed “Futures for Frontliners,” an idea inspired by the post-World War II GI Bill, which would provide tuition-free college education for essential workers.
Through and despite its schmaltzy notes, then, “We’re all in this together” is neither stupid, nor empty, nor cynical. It contains two important social messages appropriate to the moment, pleading with those who can to stay at home, social distance (which has become a verb), and for everyone to wear masks in public. And, so unusual in American society, to appreciate those who risk their lives so that others might survive the epidemic. The growing strength of an active sense of we has begun to eclipse the hyper-individualism and privatization of hope that have so marked the past generation and which have become central premises for most Republicans and many Democrats. Beyond race and class, this community sentiment draws on our latent social belonging and makes it explicit.
But our experience of community happens through race and class. Early on many people quarreled with the “all in it together” message. One of the sharpest critics, journalist Leonard Pitts, Jr., attacked the kumbaya rhetoric, saying that it simply repeated “the old sweet song of an ideal [that] America has never quite managed to make herself believe.” The reality was that death and danger, joblessness and poverty, were concentrated by class and race, and especially among the people those sheltering at home most depended on. In response to well-off celebrities videoing gratitude and good wishes from the comfort of their large, plush homes, oblivious to the inequalities of risk and suffering, power and wealth brought into the open by the pandemic, Pitts skewered the “lullaby” of togetherness sung by tone-deaf politicians and celebrities, and pointed to vicious white racism and black-white inequality past and present. Writing in early May he focused on the raucous and armed demonstrators at the Michigan state capitol sporting racist symbols like nooses and Confederate flags while demanding the end of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Pitt’s ironies underscored the emptiness of the pieties about all of us being in it together. And then, at the end of May, as if on cue, another white murder of another black person impels us to say “amen” to his bitter words.
In one of those annoying celebrity-lockdown interviews, this with Tonight host Jimmy Fallon, singer Lady Gaga showed what was wrong with the feel-good rhetoric of inclusion: “While I think the sentiment is nice, I also think that the fight I’m in . . . is very different than the fight of a woman that is in, perhaps, an abusive relationship and has a child and lost her job and can’t feed her kid and can’t feed herself and also can’t get the help that she needs because she’s in a violent situation.”
Lady Gaga was among those who recognized the enormous class and racial distance between some Americans and others. To some sharp-eyed people, being all in it together made it difficult to avoid noticing our differences, and it became impossible to not talk about America’s extreme inequality. Some were able to work from home in ample-sized houses and apartments, order groceries online, home-school their children comfortably, take walks, hang out with friends on Zoom or Facetime, and find time to be entertained by freshly available plays, concerts, and operas or keep in close touch with the world situation through TV and the internet. Their existence became more constrained or boring in many ways, but was neither uncomfortable nor dangerous. Others lost jobs or were laid off, worried about finances, took no pleasure in homeschooling in cramped homes, waited in line at food banks, or were forced to go to workplaces, often on public transportation that might be swarming with the virus. Among these were a large number of immigrants and black and brown Americans, and because they lived and worked in close quarters and had little access to protection, they were far more likely to come down with Covid-19.
The class and racial distance between those Americans who are not at all in it together can be symbolized by two different sets of statistics. The first, published by the state of Michigan early on and then gathered and presented systematically for the entire United States by the APM Research Lab, is titled “The color of coronavirus: Covid-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S.” Its main finding is that African Americans have been dying at a rate 2.6 times higher than whites from Covid-19. Much of this startling difference is explained by a history, very much alive in the present, of oppression and poverty. This often includes crowded living space and underlying health conditions. But it also includes the kinds of low-paying jobs done mostly by minorities, carried out in constant direct contact with other people in close quarters – as are many of the “essential” jobs such as nurses’ aides and nursing home assistants, deliverers of food, janitors, mail carriers, transit workers, and garbage collectors.
A contrasting story was told in the New York Times on May 16, “As Virus Hit New York, The Rich Hit the Road.” We learn that “roughly 5 percent of residents – or about 420,000 people – left the city between March 1 and May 1.“ These are mostly white residents of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, who fled to second homes in surrounding counties in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and as far afield as Palm Beach County in Florida.
The well-off, mostly white New York expatriates shelter in place, and perhaps work from home, far from the city’s discomforts and dangers, while those less fortunate, if they are essential workers who have managed to hold on to their job, face so many other burdens, many of which were causes of infection.
The ground had been prepared for thinking about inequality as a major American issue in the wake of the Great Recession and it became a major theme of the Occupy movement in 2011. Still on the increase, it featured strongly in the rise of progressive new voices in Congress in 2018 and Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2020. And then as Congress passed unemployment aid in response to the pandemic, those “stimulus” bills created an outrage by becoming slush funds for corporations and the wealthy.
Clearly, Americans are not all in this pandemic together. If we try to be together from a public health perspective, the society’s sharp social and racial inequalities contradict public health needs, at the very least by undermining the collective morale essential to the project of combating the disease. Think of “We’re all in this together” as a plea, a celebration, and a statement of a collective stick-to-it determination. Saying it asks everyone to protect everyone else – when we know that some among us can’t pay their rent or afford adequate food. Isn’t there something repugnant about assuming that people who are poor and in constant danger will feed and protect those of us who are secure and well off? All the more so when they are three times as likely to die from the disease, or under the heel of vicious police practices. Because of these realities, this plague has now become a social and political catastrophe, so different from Camus’s great story of loss, teamwork, and bearing up under the strain.
Despite all the important thinking going on about life afterwards, none of it is worth taking seriously unless it puts at its center the project of overcoming the contradictions of race and privilege that deform American society. In addition to concrete proposals to change policing practices, this will include universal medical coverage, a high basic wage (whether one is working or not), free higher education, shrinking the extreme wealth gap at both ends, collective bargaining in every workplace, and reducing the overwhelming political power of the wealthy. The agenda is well-known, including recent platforms of both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but the pandemic adds both the need for universal employment and income protection for American workers, as is being done elsewhere, and health protection at work. Without mobilizing in these ways to genuinely move towards everyone all being all in it together, the language is a monstrous parody, the old sweet song of a dying society.
We know that any steps in the direction of dealing with the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in the United States today will be opposed by a solid and raucous white minority who briefly participated in the coronavirus consensus at the start, but then pulled out. Whipped up by their president, they have chosen to not be in it together with everyone else. As a Washington Post journalist puts it most delicately, “There are communities where wearing facial coverings is culturally the norm, while in other places it is rejected on grounds of personal liberty or as refutation of the consensus view of the hazards posed by the virus.” Even at the beginning – when there was a significant degree of consensus about the shutdown – a great percentage of Republicans (36% as opposed to only 4% of Democrats) thought that the shutdown was too restrictive, some flirted with the view that Covid-19 was a hoax, and later many came to think that the death toll was exaggerated. Others stopped worrying about the coronavirus, worried more about their lost jobs or their businesses, fretted most about the economy, or became weary of sheltering at home and social distancing. Or as much-publicized demonstrators in Michigan said, they simply wanted to go to the barber or the hairdresser.
These people have been much ridiculed but, as Cat Zavis wrote, sheltering at home created identity problems for many people “whose sense of worth is shaped in large part by their value in the world of work and their ability to support their family.” This is a sympathetic social and psychological reflection about a swath of the society that does not contain very many essential workers, let alone many who are black and brown. A political and historical refection on those opposing social distancing needs to be added, as well as one more attuned to racial and class dynamics. As the headline of the Kaiser Family Foundation polling on coronavirus in late May concludes, “Deep Partisan Differences Emerge on Almost Every Dimension of Coronavirus.” Many of those who briefly went along with social distancing as the danger of the pandemic was becoming clear in March have, since the Michigan demonstration against the lockdown in mid-April and Trump’s infamous “Liberate Michigan” tweet, decided they were no longer in it together with everyone else in the battle against Covid-19. As Zavis puts it, other issues have become more important for them. But their relationship to Donald Trump is central in this shift. Alternately following and leading his base, Trump offered the bizarre spectacle of a president appeared to direct and oppose national efforts against Covid-19 at the same time. His disruptive performance could not help but encourage supporters, among whom many, among them large numbers of evangelical Christians, are receptive to the insane war on science.
Even after the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that followed, Trump has continued playing his base like a banjo, and they are the last place one would look for support for any efforts to improve the lot of America’s essential workers. This is an old and much-lamented story in American history, and it was repeated by sometimes sharp hostility from anti-lockdown demonstrators towards counter-demonstrators who were health-care workers. With their racism, hostility to immigrants, aggressive patriotism, flirtation with right-wing extremism, sense of grievance against Democrats and “elites,” and cult-like devotion to Trump (unchanging for five years now), they tend to be tone-deaf to the shameful class and race inequalities that have marked other people’s lives during the pandemic – of work, of wealth, of living conditions, of health care, of the chances of survival. They clearly just want to get back to normal – to get out of the house, to get back to work, to go shopping, to go out to eat. As many of them said, to be “free.” As Jamelle Bouie suggested in the New York Times, this notion of “freedom” is rooted in America’s racial history.
A very different kind of energy has been happening elsewhere in the society. I have mentioned the public health awareness that everyone is in it together, the gratitude felt towards essential workers, and our sharpening awareness of inequalities. And at the same time, essential workers have been taking the question of their treatment by powerful employers and the government into their own hands. With or without unions, many workers have been striking and otherwise staying away from work as never before in protest against unsafe working conditions. And as usual, everything under Trump becomes politicized: a president unwilling to invoke the War Production Act to ensure production of vital medical equipment was quite willing, at the behest of meat industry executives, to force meat-packing workers to report to work in dangerous conditions. If a social conflict has been unleashed by the pandemic, workers fighting for their own safety is a key part of it. The specter of increasing Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants in rural areas is one of the cruelest outrages of the pandemic.
And now, after the death of George Floyd, the demonstrations all over the country both express a deeper sense of outrage and, paradoxically, show us some of the strongest reasons for hope in the face of the pandemic. The most remarkable fact about the national response to the Floyd killing is the extent of white participation. I don’t mean the rioting of a small number of otherwise-motivated whites, but the massive presence of whites at demonstrations around the country. As they face police attacks with tear gas and rubber bullets aren’t they insisting, with their bodies, “We are all in this together”? And their presence is striking not only in big city demonstrations with a significant African American presence, but even more in unexpected and generally conservative areas like Grand Rapids, Michigan and overwhelmingly white small towns and suburbs that have seen gatherings of hundreds of young people or their very first demonstrations. Again and again small knots of white students have stood at intersections with hand-made signs, drawing car honks from passers-by, holding signs saying “Black Lives Matter.”
We all know that something historic has been happening. While for most participants it might just feel like “the right thing to do,” seen from a longer-term perspective something truly new is taking place. Some social barrier, some “othering” between whites and blacks seems to have diminished, replaced by fellow feeling and mutual respect. This is mirrored in much of the media reporting on the uprising, as many African Americans are seriously consulted for their comments, and protestors are given great respect and sympathy and clearly distinguished from the handful of rioters and looters. And it is reflected in demonstrations of support, as when Facebook employees refused to work out of solidarity with the protestors and, as I mentioned earlier, when police officers and national guard troops joined them in taking a knee.
All indicators show that white understanding of the conditions of life for African Americans has grown markedly in the last few years. For one thing, despite continuing segregation and racism, the political picture was transformed with the election of Barack Obama as president. It has become customary among progressives to criticize Obama for his within-the-system timidity, but we are now noticing another effect of his presidency, its transformative effect on black and white consciousness of themselves and each other. During his presidency African Americans experienced a new comfort and confidence moving around formerly white America. In addition, in the last dozen years the demographic picture has slowly changed, raising the percentages of blacks in predominately white neighborhoods, at work, at universities and colleges, and in intimate relationships with whites.
All this is well known. But what is new, since early 2020, is the complicated and contradictory fellow feeling engendered by Covid-19. It seems as if the feelings of universality, dependency, gratitude, guilt, and anger generated by the social conditions of the pandemic have been affecting the rest of our lives and our sense of each other. It is undeniably true that since the beginning of February and despite everything, the vast majority of Americans have experienced “solidaristic feelings enhanced by having to face a common enemy.” In fact, now we are confronting two common enemies – racism and coronavirus. The quote is from historian Donald Sassoon’s discussion in One Hundred Years of Socialism of the effect of the life-and-death British struggle against Nazi Germany in World War II. He is describing the Labour Party’s victory in 1945 and the social energy that resulted in the creation of the modern welfare state. My point is that that with and because of all its contradictions, our fellow feeling has been real as never before, and will not be exhausted soon. Is it possible that similar world-changing consequences are arising from our struggles?
The painful fact is that there is no hope of getting there without intense partisan conflict. After all, depending on the question asked, thirty to forty percent or more of Americans continue to support Trump, have increasingly resisted the lockdown, and do not sympathize with today’s anti-racist uprising. Beyond all demographic analysis, they are largely heirs of an earlier history, filled with waves of resistance, defeat, resentment, and defiance accumulated over recent generations – they are the descendants of those who defended segregation, supported the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, belonged to the anti-busing movement, were for the Vietnam war and against the peace movement of the 1960s, defended school prayer in the 1970s, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, embraced the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Today they oppose gay marriage, give endless support for the gun culture under the theme of “Gun Rights,” believe in “religious freedom” to discriminate, and refuse to confront, and ask how to undo, the heritage of slavery. Many of them still justify police killings of unarmed black men.
When a black president was elected, their representatives in Washington vowed to block him at every turn and make him a one-term president. They joined the Tea Party, vowing to “Take our country back.” Encouraged by none other than Donald Trump, the “birthers” doubted that Obama was born in this country, and accused him of being a Muslim. Trump’s presidency has absorbed the bitter edge of this history and brought it into the present: against Muslims, against women, against Mexican and Central American immigrants, against black foreign countries and black-majority American cities. And now, against the uprising.
Trump’s people belong to a related and deeper story that reaches well beyond the limits of this essay: how roots of today’s evangelical Christianity can be traced to the slaveholding South; how after the Civil War the defeated South restored white rule and overthrew Reconstruction; how its Redeemers kept the freed slaves at bay through Jim Crow and terror, including lynching, keeping them as near as possible to their former condition; how achieving this entailed systematic retardation of the South, keeping it as an isolated, impoverished backwater lacking industrialization, cities, education, and immigrants; how the white South eventually embraced the kinds of anti-modernist religion that fit its self-chosen backwardness; how its decentralized, evangelical Christianity spread north and west with millions of white migrants seeking jobs; how while unionization was being defeated in their home states, these migrants and their churches “Southernized” American society between the end of World War II and the 1970s; how their religions embraced anti-Communism and sold themselves to unregulated capitalism during this time; and how millions became the faithful of this religious tradition in the process of coming to oppose the transformations being brought about by the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war and youth rebellions of the 1960s and, soon after, the gay and lesbian struggle for equality. They reflect back to us how the bitter resistance to modernity, equality, and democracy has spilled over from its starting point, slavery, to poison the rest of American life, and how strong is their hostility to government enforcement of equality, democracy – and now, public health.
At the moment, then, we might say, Yogi Berra-like: There are two kinds of people in America – those who think we’re all in it together, and those who don’t. The pandemic and now the uprising after George Floyd’s murder have only underscored the fact that we are at war politically and have been for a generation. Looking ahead, if we care about having a society worth living in, the only alternative is to fight that war to win. Then perhaps we may be able to speak without contradiction of all of us being in it together.
 See Ronald Aronson, We: Reviving Social Hope (Chicago, 2017). The notion of latent social belonging is drawn from Rebecca Solnit. See 133-35, 158-59.
 Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald, May 5, 2020 https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article242516986.html/
 Christi Carras, “Celebrities Keep Saying We’re All in This Together But Lady Gaga Isn’t So Sure,” Los Angeles Times April 5, 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-04-07/coronavirus-lady-gaga-jimmy-fallon-tonight-show
 As of May 20, 2019. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race
 Cat Zavis, https://www.tikkun.org/why-people-are-demanding-to-get-back-to-work
 See also two articles by Joe Lowndes: “Death Drive to the Capitols” and “The Morbid Ideology Behind the Drive to Re-open America”
For my analysis of Trump’s supporters see “Solid Trumpism,” Boston Review July 25, 2019
 Chase Woodruff, “Health-Care Workers Face Off Against Anti-Shutdown Protesters,” April 20, 2020 https://www.westword.com/news/colorado-health-care-workers-operation-gridlock-protesters-11694018
“U.S. doctors enduring verbal abuse on the frontlines,” Yahoo News, March 31, 2020: https://finance.yahoo.com/amphtml/video/u-doctors-enduring-verbal-abuse-061504915.html
Dawson White, “Slashed tires and violence: Health care workers face new dangers amid COVID-19 battle,” Miami Herald, April 13, 2020: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article241967281.html
Sophie Roborgh and Larissa Fast, “Healthcare workers are still coming under attack during the coronavirus pandemic,” The Conversation, April 28, 2020: https://theconversation.com/healthcare-workers-are-still-coming-under-attack-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-136573
 Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman, “The Floyd protests are the broadest in U.S. history — and are spreading to white, small-town America,” The Monkey Cage/Washington Post: June 6, 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/06/floyd-protests-are-broadest-us-history-are-spreading-white-small-town-america/
 Thanks to Danny Postel for this.